2020 October-November Analysis

Pardon our dust – work in progress to bring Georgian roads up to EU snuff, reduce accidents

Road accident losses in Georgia, injuries and damage costs amount to 5% of Georgia’s GDP, but better roads, policing and public awareness have seen road accidents and fatalities fall 20% in the past five years.

Georgians across the country have been asked to bear with ‘road improvements’ for a while now. Motorists have been suffering for years from the seemingly interminable work on Georgia’s section of European Route E60, the motorway that will run from France to the borders of China.

Nearer to home and just outside the front door, cities and towns have been torn up, disrupting the Tbilisi districts of Saburtalo and Vake, and central roads in Telavi, Kutaisi, Kashuri, and Rustavi, to name a few.

The latest local Eastern Partnership (EaP) report on the European Union’s Association Agreement applauds Georgia for success in having “intensified its efforts over the last decade to improve the transport system in the country”, noting more is to come.

Behind all this are huge numbers. Not just the billions of dollars being poured into the construction works by international donors, financial agencies from the World Bank to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Asian Development Bank, the European Investment Bank et al and the government. While improved international transport networks that help boost economic growth are the major reason for all these agencies to back the new highways, at the heart of this is also the cost-impact of accidents on the Georgian economy.

Road accidents and fatalities in Georgia have been falling for years in Georgia, in spite of a growing fleet of cars, and in the last five yrs, fatalities have fallen 20%, thanks to increased seatbelt use, lower drunk-driving and better policing.

However, according to World Bank data, road accident losses, injuries, and damage costs amount to five percent of Georgia’s GDP. Another source, the EU’s Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA) project report of 2016, gave a figure of $438 million annually, or 3.9 percent of the annual GDP. “The growing numbers of casualties are imposing severe strains on the scarce resources of police, medical, and other agencies that have to cope with the consequences of traffic accidents,” states the United Nations Road Safety Review of 2018, Georgia: from Reforming to Performing.

The good news is that road accident numbers for Georgia have been declining, even if those for deaths have risen slightly. Georgia’s own National Road Safety Strategy document stated just a couple of years ago that: “Road users in Georgia face significantly higher risks of death and injury than in many other countries in the European and Central Asia region. Georgia has a road death rate (measured by the number of inhabitants) which is substantially higher than the best in Europe and more than double the average road death rate across all EU countries.”

A wide-ranging strategy, incorporating high visibility and tougher policing, speed controls, drunk-driving monitoring; moves to improve the safety of vehicles as well as roads; safety education, and publicity campaigns have all brought improvements. The Georgian Alliance for Safe Roads, based at the Georgian Interior Ministry, said that last year there were 5,839 accidents, down 9.5 percent, while the number of injured fell by 12.5 percent to 7,921 – but those killed rose by five per cent to 481.

Numbers for Tbilisi show the same pattern, and that 10 per cent more people were killed in road accidents in 2019, at 100, while road accidents fell by eight percent to 2,891 and the injured totalled 3,430 against 2018’s 3,155.

The Georgian Patrol Police Department (www.police.ge) provides the following list of the main causes of accidents:

1. Illegal maneuvering and other traffic movement violations
2. Speeding (currently around a third of all accidents)
3. Pedestrian-related dangerous behaviour
4. Drinking and driving (4-5% of all accidents)
5. Poor condition of vehicles

Not much road work is currently being headlined for Tbilisi’s streets, the main public focus having moved to getting motorists out of cars and on to cycle lanes and the metro. Tbilisi’s major target has become to reduce the horrific air pollution – last year the World Health Organisation said the country ranked 70 out of 194 countries by indicator of mortality due to air pollution, down from a 2012 ranking of No.1, according to Agenda.ge.

Mzevar Gogilava, Head of Traffic Management Department at Tbilisi City Hall, told a press conference a few months ago that: “Tbilisi City Hall is building a new bicycle infrastructure to promote active mobility and promote cycling as a means of transportation. Our goal is to reduce the use of private vehicles when citizens travel short distances.” However, central Tbilisi has yet to be given the same pedestrian and cyclist friendly treatment as one of the city’s main arteries, Chavchavadze Avenue. For highways, still to come, according to the EaP’s 2020 report assessing Georgia’s progress against Association Agreement commitments, are many major roadworks which currently are still works in progress: construction of the €101 million Grigoleti-Kobuleti highway has been postponed for two years, construction of the Batumi bypass-Sarpi road is set for 2021-2024, the Chumateliti-Argveta highway should be finalised by 2022, work on the €115 million Rustavi-Red Bridge highway is undated and the €90 million Algeti-Sadakhlo road is at the stage of technical development. Major road works are seemingly continuous in tourist mountain areas as post-climate extreme weather brings torrential rains, causing floods and landslides that have eroded roads and even washed them away, such as the Oni road in Racha-Lechkhumi in July.

Dangerously narrow roads, such as the Dusheti municipality site of August’s tragic minibus accident which killed 17, are also being restructured. Following the tragedy, news website Euronews put out a story stating “Traffic accidents in Georgia are commonplace, and the country ranks among the deadliest, according to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development”.

Georgian government spending on roads in 2016 and 2017 was over 1.36 billion GEL and in 2018 it was 1.2 billion GEL. Highway spending was 751.5 million GEL in 2016 and 2017 and in 2018 it was 687.9 million GEL. Georgia’s National Road Safety Strategy report acknowledges that “the cost-benefit ratio of investment in road safety engineering treatments is high, commonly around 5 times on major schemes and even 2 to 3 times on improved networks.”

Tbilisi residents awoke to a strange sight on the roads in mid-April 2019: destroyed cars mounted upside down on posts at several locations across the city.

The demands of the EU Association Agreement are, however, for far more than just spending on road infrastructure to bring down Georgia’s incidence of road accidents. In January 2020, the Georgian parliament amended the Law on Roads to comply with the obligation to identify all ‘black spots’, equip them with signs, and take preventive measures, including information campaigns, to avoid further accidents. The latest EaP report states that Action Plan 2020 also envisages installing cameras, safety barriers and warning signs at ‘black spots’ with GIS-controlled systems to collect information and to prevent car clustering and keep them distanced.

Road safety awareness, especially of young drivers, the report points out, is “still at a low level and the government needs to implement a wide-reaching communication campaign” such as the recent road safety awareness campaign ‘For more lives’. Plus, there is the need to reduce drunk-driving and to improve the competence of Georgian drivers. To cover just some of this, Georgia has been spending several million dollars annually on road safety.

A National Accidents Data Electronic Platform (NADEP) is being developed to fully record the details of car accidents for analysis and to monitor the impact of measures to improve safety. The EaP report continues that while technical inspection of cars has been introduced gradually since 2017 and since 2019 is compulsory for all types of cars, “the inspection does not fully match Association Agreement commitments. The impact analyses in 2016 showed that Georgian society was not prepared to comply with EU-compatible high-cost inspection of cars.”

Meanwhile, the web commentary on Georgian roads and driving for foreign drivers remains distinctly wary. Or, as one travel blog put it – “Georgia is a very special country with quite special traffic!”

____________________________ ADVERTISEMENT ____________________________