Some blame it on the roads; others blame it on the drivers. But, increasingly, many Kyrgyz contend that corrupt traffic cops are the main problem behind Kyrgyzstan's soaring rate of car accidents.
Even the president has recently highlighted corruption among the traffic police; many Kyrgyz mock their profession.
"I think the only purpose of the traffic police is to collect bribes. That's all," said a taxi driver who gave his name as Boris.
Either way, 2007 was a record-breaking year. According to police statistics, 1,252 people died and 6,223 were injured in car accidents, up almost a quarter from the previous year. By comparison, Denmark, with roughly the same size of population, had 10 times more vehicles, but registered only a third of the number of traffic-related deaths over the same period, according to Danish government statistics.
Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Health cites driving violations and poor road infrastructure as the main reasons for traffic accidents. Road infrastructure has declined since the fall of the Soviet Union 17 years ago, but the number of vehicles has exploded exponentially over the same period. The number of registered cars in Kyrgyzstan increased by 33 percent in the first ten months of 2008 alone to some to 424,000 vehicles, national traffic police data shows.
Aigul, a nurse in the casualty ward of Bishkek Children's Hospital, receives child casualties every day. "I think our narrow roads and too many cars are main reasons of accidents. On the other hand, drivers buy driving licenses and they don't know driving rules," she explained.
"Of course, the reasons are complex. But the sense of impunity is the main reason for the terrifying statistics" said Raymkuluulu Kasymbek, a former traffic police chief who is the head of Ak Jol Five, an organization lobbying for improved traffic safety. "According to my calculation, 35 percent of drivers are from the so-called 'untouchable caste.' These are judges, prosecutors, police, intelligence officials, high-ranked bureaucrats, deputies and so on. They are unreachable by law and the police. Another 35 percent of drivers have money and are able to bribe traffic police. Imagine, only 30 percent of drivers are afraid to be punished and try to follow the rules," Kasymbek said.
Boris the taxi driver agreed: "I never pay fines. It's cheaper and saves time to bribe traffic police at the scene."
According to the Interior Ministry, 13 traffic officers were criminally charged with bribe-taking in 2007, up from four in 2006. A traffic policeman's salary is around $60 per month.
During a recent speech to the nation, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev underlined the problem and called on the traffic police to begin employing women. "They are more principled and don't take bribes" he posited.
The police have hired 11 women to help patrol the roads. Kubanychbek Imamov, deputy head of the country's traffic police, explained the logic: "When a male driver is approached by a female officer, it is shameful for him to deny his violation."
On August 8, a new administrative code came into force, increasing fines for road violations. As drivers have more to fear, they may drive more carefully, the thinking goes. "You see the results," said Chief Bolotbek Borbiev, head of the Main Directorate for Road Traffic Safety. "You can notice all drivers started to use seat belts. Now we will work to make drivers let pedestrians pass on zebra crossings."
But with the increased fines come higher margins for corrupt officers. Several drivers told EurasiaNet the cost of bribes has increased apace the fines. What was once a bribe of 20 or 50 som now costs a minimum of 100 som ($2.50).
Meanwhile, some attempt is being made at mending the traffic police's image. On November 19, police donated blood and visited hospitals where children were recovering from car accidents. According to the Interior Ministry's press service, the events were aimed at drawing "public attention to road accident survivors, to the horrible statistics of car victims and potential risks on the country's roads."
Nonetheless, many still bemoan the situation. "There is no reform. I doubt there is any person within the interior ministry who is interested in changing the system," concluded former traffic cop Kasymbek.
Arlsan Mamatov is the pseudonym for a Kyrgyz journalist.