Mongolia has a de jure standard of right-hand traffic. In other words, regardless of whether there is a road or not, two vehicles traveling in opposite directions will pass each other on the left. All regulations and infrastructure related to Mongolia’s traffic have been designed for vehicles to have the steering wheel on the left.
However, 54 percent of 440,000 vehicles in Mongolia in 2015 had steering wheels on the right-hand side. In the same year, a total of 37,000 vehicles were imported by Mongolia, and 34,000 of them were produced in Japan with right-hand steering wheels. If we look at their value, these exports were worth 210 million USD, meaning 180 million USD was spent on Japanese-made cars.
The Japan-Mongolia Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) has waived import taxes for vehicles that are at least three-years-old, as well as brand new cars, and reduced taxes on cars older than three years. This policy is going to entail a further increase in the number of cars with a steering wheel on the right. Japan bans the use of vehicles more than 10-years-old, and there is a strong interest in selling off seven to eight-year-old cars. According to information from Mongolian Customs General Administration, total exports from Mongolia to Japan from 2011-2015 were worth 72 million USD, while exports from Japan to Mongolia were worth 2 billion USD. Approximately 1.3 billion USD of the exports from Japan to Mongolia were vehicles, 66 percent of which were Prii, the official plural term for the Toyota Prius.
MORE ACCIDENTS AS ROADS IMPROVE
Traffic can be made safer, faster, and less congested when the movement of vehicles is suited for a steering wheel on the right or on the left.
According to data from the Traffic Police, 2014 saw a total of 11,630 accidents, 59 of which involved vehicles that were not aligned with regulations by having a right-hand steering wheel. If we look at 2015, there were 41,064 accidents, 64.4 percent of which involved vehicles with steering wheels on the wrong (right) side. It can also be seen that traffic accidents increased by almost 400 percent within one year.
In order to overtake another car, the driver of a vehicle with a right-hand steering wheel has to move fully to the left for the road ahead to be seen. Besides speeding, this is one of the causes of many traffic accidents. Multiple-year data shows us that when roads improve – especially in Ulaanbaatar, there are increasingly more traffic accidents.
Mongolia paved 6,351 kilometers of roads from 2012-2015, and is planning to pave another 5,700 kilometers in 2016-2021. Countryside roads are usually two-way, and have no lines separating lanes. Drivers pass each other at high speeds and without visual aids to distinguish between lanes. Also, many accidents are triggered by drivers taking sudden turns to avoid potholes.
Furthermore, traffic slows down overall because drivers spend too much time trying to get their hands out of the front passenger-side window, as many locations have toll stations on the left side. In many cases, drivers have to get out of their vehicle to pay their toll, or receive a parking ticket. The rule of the left lane being for cars driving at higher speeds no longer applies, because most vehicles now have a steering wheel on the right. In other words, we no longer have passing lanes for roads that have enough lanes to allow for them. Regardless of the number of lanes on a road, we do not have differences in vehicle speed anymore. Drivers are too aggressive, and if you demand that they move to the right, you might end up verbally – or even physically – attacked.
Many drivers on countryside roads do not change between high and low beam headlights, which forces drivers in oncoming traffic to use their senses rather than eyesight. Vehicles with the steering wheel on the right are adjusted in a way that their high beams are directed to the left side of the road. So, when these cars are driven on a right-hand road, their high beam headlights are directed at the left-hand side of the road, making it harder for the driver coming from the opposite direction to see the road. This is why special tape is put on the headlights of vehicles that are driven on both British and French roads, because they have different standards. If those adaptors are not there, drivers are subject to fines wherever they go.
A SOLUTION IS READY
The difference between right and left-hand rules originates from the Middle Ages. As settlements developed, people started using the same roads. While most people were right-handed, they used to carry their swords on their left side, so that they were ready to grab their sword with their right hand. This is where the left-hand rule comes from. By the 1700s, farming developed intensively in America and France, which led to horse-drawn carriages carrying food between towns and cities. People mounted horses on the left to see their left side more clearly and to be able to whip the horse on the right. This started the right-hand traffic standard.
History tells us that every country has selected either the right or left-hand side rule to ensure greater traffic safety. It led to regulations prohibiting the import of vehicles that were made to different standards. By the 1990s, almost 80 percent of Cambodia’s vehicles had the steering wheel on the wrong side. However, when the new century arrived, a plan was put in place to ensure that steering wheels would be on the right side. Our northern neighbor, Russia, also started modifying Japanese-made cars to adhere to their traffic rules.
During the time of Prime Minister S.Batbold, Mongolia ratified a national strategy to ensure traffic safety in 2012. This strategy laid out that the percentage of vehicles with left-hand steering wheels had to be raised to 75 percent by 2015, up from the baseline of 54 percent, and to 95 percent by 2020. Unfortunately, as they say Mongolian laws only last for three days, no one provided oversight on the implementation of this strategy, and vehicles with left-hand steering wheels are dominating the pool. This should fall under the responsibilities of the Ministry of Roads and Transportation. However, given that Mongolian ministries always change their structures and names, many streams of work are simply forsaken without any responsible owners.
What would be the most effective thing to do? If we pass a law saying that all vehicles must have left-hand steering columns by 2020 and that importing cars that don’t meet standards will be banned, how many lives could we save, and how will traffic flow improve? If we follow current import trends and legalize only vehicles with right-hand steering, we would end up having completely opposite standards from our two neighboring countries. If that happened, it would make the efforts to make Mongolia a transit corridor go to waste, and have counter-effective outcomes. One has to wonder whether the authorities are contemplating this issue.
What roadblocks does the government face before they can pass a law to follow the right-hand driving standards? How many lives have to be lost before this is done?
Trans. by B.Amar