Traffic in Kyrgyzstan is always dangerous for pedestrians. Even sidewalks are perilous places.
Police in the impoverished southern province of Batken have detained a 16-year-old suspected of crushing to death two 9-year-olds and injuring four more children in a hit-and-run accident involving a stolen Mercedes.
Local press reports cited police as saying the young man worked at a car wash and filched a set of extra keys from the car’s owner. Around midday on October 20, the car rammed into a group of second- and third-graders walking down the side of the road in the town of Kyzyl-Kiya, then slid up a pole and fell over; the driver disappeared. Two of the children died on the spot, while the others were hospitalized with various injuries. Strangely, the only criminal charges mentioned in the news reports are traffic safety violations and “leaving [someone] endangered,” not manslaughter.
The devastating collision fits Kyrgyzstan’s troubling pattern in road safety: According to World Health Organization statistics from 2007, 43 percent of fatalities resulting from traffic accidents were among pedestrians. (In neighboring Kazakhstan, a much larger and wealthier country where drivers often stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings, the proportion was only 16 percent.)
Drivers in Kyrgyzstan often see traffic regulations as suggestions rather than rules, as do traffic police, who are notorious for their corruption. The police are also known for closing their eyes to violations by the rich and powerful. On October 25, in the capital, Bishkek, a group of parliament deputies spent a day shadowing traffic cops, making sure they stopped drivers who broke the law even when their cars bore signs of belonging to wealthy and influential owners. One of the cars allegedly belonged to another lawmaker. Its violation, deputy Shirin Aitmatova told journalists, was that all of its windows were tinted – a popular but illegal custom.
“At the instruction of the traffic police officers, the car should have gone directly to the pound,” Aitmatova was quoted as saying; “however, later the car was seen parked near one of the capital’s casinos.”