A traffic company that operates buses along the 1,400-kilometer Kabul-Herat highway has vowed to implement new safety measures after a series of shocking crashes in which dozens of people were killed.
It is impossible to give definitive figures on traffic accidents and associated casualties due to problems with information gathering and sharing in Afghanistan.
But information gathered by IWPR on incidents along a route that locals nickname “the Highway of Death” reveal an alarming casualty rate.
IWPR gathered data relating to one of Afghanistan’s best-known licensed transport companies, Ahmad Shah Baba Abdali.
Hikmatullah Qawanch, a spokesman for the ministry of transport and civil aviation, told IWPR that Ahmad Shah Baba Abdali had been ranked among the country’s top transportation companies in 2017.
Some of the more spectacular incidents involving Ahmad Shah Baba Abdali vehicles have been widely reported in the Afghan media, such as a pile-up two years ago that resulted in the deaths of 73 people. On May 9, 2016 in the Muqur district of Ghazni province, two Ahmad Shah Abdali passenger buses crashed into a loaded fuel tanker. Most of the victims died in the ensuing conflagration.
IWPR received hugely varying answers to requests from various agencies to clarify the number of accidents involving Ahmad Shah Baba Abdali buses on this particular route over the last three years.
The traffic department of Afghanistan’s interior ministry reported that the company had been involved in 37 incidents. Abdul Hakeem Bakhtyar, head of the office dealing with traffic accidents, told IWPR that as far as they knew 70 civilians had been killed, but that casualty figures might be even higher.
Jan Agha, head of Ghazni police’s traffic accidents investigation branch, said that Ahmad Shah Baba Abdali passenger buses had been involved in 40 accidents in the last three years on the Ghazni stretch of the highway alone. He added that 170 people had died in these accidents.
In Maidan Wardak, police spokesman Naqeebullah Amini said that over the same time period in the stretch of the highway that ran through the province, 23 people had been killed in 12 accidents involving Ahmad Shah Abdali buses.
However, IWPR looked at just 22 traffic accidents involving Ahmad Shah Baba Abdali vehicles which took place over the last three years on Kabul-Herat highway. Based on statements made by injured people themselves and the relatives of those killed in the accidents, IWPR calculated that as many as 350 people may have died in these incidents.
Figures from Ahmad Shah Baba Abdali varied even further from these estimates.
Ahmadullah, an employee in Ahmad Shah Baba Abdali’s Kabul office, said that their vehicles had been involved in just six accidents over the past three years in which only three civilians had been killed.
He added that their drivers committed to driving at a reasonable speed and said he was sure they were keeping to this promise.
ROUTE OF DEATH
The highway that links Kandahar, Kabul and Herat was once hailed as an important achievement for Afghan reconstruction. In recent years, conditions have deteriorated significantly due to a lack of maintenance as well as continued insurgent attack.
There is also little oversight. Ghulam Nabi Farkhi, acting director of Herat’s traffic department, said that although speeding was the main cause of traffic accidents on the Kabul-Herat route, officials had failed to take any action.
“The traffic police of the Kabul-Herat highway don’t have any role in controlling the vehicles,” he concluded.
IWPR spoke to a former driver for Ahmad Shah Abdali who worked on the Kabul-Herat highway between 2014 and 2016.
Mohammad Umar, a 30-year-old from Chambaran village in Ghazni’s Muqur district, said that he had been advised by other staff to overtake the buses of rival companies on this route. He added that any driver who reached his destination faster than his colleagues would receive a special commendation.
Others have alleged that bus drivers use drugs including hashish.
Abdullah, a resident of Herar’s Khwajah Kala, travels to Kandahar once every 15 days to transport tyres. The 38-year-old described one incident in early February this year when he was riding in an Ahmad Shah Abdali bus.
When the driver stopped his bus in the Chak Ab area of Farah province so that passengers could pray next to the road. Abdullah said he noticed him rubbing some hashish in the palm of his hand
“Then I saw the driver smoking hashish,” he said, adding that the driver told him he smoked hashish so that he wouldn’t fall asleep while he was driving.
Other regular travelers along the route said that they had witnessed multiple crashes involving the firms’ buses.
Naseer Ahmad, a resident of Wardak’s provincial capital Maidan Shar, is a tanker driver who has been transporting fuel from Nimroz to Herat and Kabul for the past 20 years. The 45-year-old told IWPR that he could recall many traffic accidents on the highway, but one that had stuck in his mind was an incident in October, 2017 in which ten people were killed, including women and children.
Ahmad had been driving through the Qalah-e-Haidar Khan area in the western part of Kabul at around three am when he came across the collision.
“Two Ahmad Shah Abdali buses were moving in the direction of Kabul and two other buses, one of them also belonging to Ahmad Shah Abdali and the other one to the Wardak Baba transport company that were towards Kandahar had collided,” Ahmad said.
Another man, Nasir, said that he had been working as a Herat ambulance driver for the past two years. The 30-year-old recalled an accident involving an Ahmad Shah Abdali bus in July 2016 on the Kabul-Herat highway.
“I saw the dead bodies of 15 passengers of this accident in the morgue of Herat’s regional hospital, and the dead body of the driver had been severed into two parts,” he recalled.
Nasir also said that he had helped transport the bodies of 28 passengers riding in an Ahmad Shah Abdali bus which had crashed into a truck loaded with cements in the Toot area of Farah province on December 18, 2016.
Following that accident, Herat’s provincial council suspended all Ahmad Shah Abdali services until its local representative Agha Jan promised to implement moves that would decrease future casualty figures.
Herat provincial council head Kamran Alizai told IWPR that they had imposed conditions on Ahmad Shah Abdali including having two drivers on board each vehicle, sacking drivers who took drugs and reducing speeds.
The company’s deputy head, Noorullah, agreed that their drivers did use to speed in the past, but he said that this was because of fear of attack as they travelled along the Kabul-Herat highway.
Noorullah told IWPR that bandits and robbers set up ambushes along this route meaning drivers had to drive fast to keep their passengers safe.
“We had many traffic accidents in the past, but now our drivers are under control,” Noorullah said.
As for the allegations that their drivers took drugs, Noorullah said that this was untrue. He added that staff now underwent testing by medics and Kandahar traffic police to prove this.
“The Abdali company has 250 passenger buses and each of them costs 60,000 dollars. If we hired drug addicts as drivers, it’s clear that the company would soon go bankrupt.”
This project funded by British Embassy Kabul.