There is now hope for Ukraine’s roads

Today you can find both new and disastrous roads in Ukraine, although the latter become less and less frequent. 

Reforms

Editor’s Note

More than 1,300,000 people die in fatal traffic accidents around the world each year, with 35,000 in the U.S. alone. In Ukraine, about 5,000 people die on average in traffic accidents per year. Thus, in 30 years of Ukrainian independence, almost the entire population of the city of Ternopil — a regional center in Western Ukraine — has died in traffic accidents. Yet Ukraine’s road fatality rate has declined by 30% — all of it in recent years.

While alcohol is the leading cause of traffic accidents in the world, in Ukraine the poor design of roads should not be underestimated. When in 2019 Reece Lynch, a bold UK filmmaker, drove his grandmother’s Ford Fiesta 3,700 km right across Europe to the Ukrainian Donbas to film the ongoing war for his project First Focus, it took him three days to drive halfway — from the UK to the Ukrainian border — and then five days for the other half — from the Ukrainian border to the Donbas.

Why is there such a difference? Because Ukraine has few highways. Although the overall network of thoroughfares is well-developed, it mainly consists of only two-lane roads. Lynch probably obeyed the speed limits of 60 and 80 km of villages — however, it is not usual for many Ukrainian drivers who save time by driving at least 100 km — even through villages. They would probably say there is no alternative, and a potential speeding fine of UAH 510 ($19) is not much of a disincentive. Here is what to expect on Ukrainian roads and how the situation eventually is improving.

Disclaimer: despite widespread perceptions, Ukraine’s traffic-related mortality rate is relatively low on the world scale. Yet, it is the second most dangerous country in Europe.

According to the Global Burden of Disease Collaborative Network, in 2017, Ukraine was between Peru and Colombia with its 14.01 traffic-related deaths and injuries per 100,000 inhabitants, which is way over the West European average of 4.85. In comparison, the U.S. has 12.16 deaths and injuries per 100,000, while the Central African Republic — the leader in traffic deaths and injuries — had 85.50 per 100,000.

Only Russia had a higher death and injury rate in 2017, and Ukrainians are fed up with the situation. The countries with the safest roads such as Switzerland, Singapore, and Sweden have a little over three deaths and injuries per 100,000.

Admittedly, the situation on Ukrainian roads is probably worse than official statistics indicated, as Head of the Vision Zero road safety initiative Viktor Zagreb told BBC.

On the other hand, the common perception of all roads in Ukraine being terrible is not entirely correct, either. What was indeed a disastrous reality 10 years ago has become a terrible memory. A major program of road reconstruction was started by former Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman (2016-2019) and is now continuing by President Zelenskyy’s team.

Overall, some 7,000 km of the most-traveled roads were completely reconstructed by Groysman’s initiative. Zelenskyy’s team has announced another 24,000 km to be renewed in the next five years — a figure that translates into a total reconstruction of all state roads. Work is currently underway to meet this goal despite the disruptions of the coronavirus crisis.

So-called “Road of Death” connecting Lviv and Ternopil before the beginning of reconstruction in 2017.

So-called “Road of Death” connecting Lviv and Ternopil after the reconstruction in 2017. Source: tvoemisto.

Therefore, it is not the poor condition of roads but their design that is now the main cause of traffic fatalities. Ukraine has no highways with a maximum speed of 110 km or over. As a result, drivers often treat secondary roads that pass through villages but connect the main cities as highways, violating speed limits to cut travel time, and thus adding to the number of accidents.

Speed limits that will not work without proper roads and alternative highways

[On 1 June, the first traffic cameras monitoring speed limits were installed around Kyiv. On the first day, a camera captured a record violation by a car — 208 km per/hour on a road where the speed limit is 80. In the first five days, 45 cameras captured some 200,000 violations.

Offending drivers receive a letter advising them of their fine and requiring payment or court appearance. Clearly, it will be difficult to administer the large number of fines generated by traffic cameras. Nonetheless, police have set a goal of 683 cameras in the country by the end of the year.

This is the necessary reform that many citizens have been waiting for. Cameras are the only effective tool to impede gross violations of traffic rules and for all drivers to abide by the same rules — regardless of their income or status. However, as Pavlo Syrvatka, division head at the state-owned, road construction company Ukravtodor explained, neither cameras nor road regulations will contribute sufficiently to minimize the risk of traffic accidents and control speed limits — the design of roads is at the heart of the matter.

Roads with speed limits of 20, 40, or 60 km/hour should look like roads with such limits. Roads with limits of 110 or over should look like actual highways with multi-lanes. In Ukraine, however, multi-lane motorways are rare, and even those often pass through villages.

Conversely, some motorways between cities — which should be designed as highways — look like ordinary two-lane rural roads. If stuck behind a slow vehicle, drivers will often switch to the lane in the opposite direction, driving dangerously fast and sometimes in the face of an oncoming vehicle. These defects in road design exacerbate an already bad situation.

The well-traveled motorway Lviv-Kyiv that passes through a village and thus is limited to 80 kilometers in that place. The car in the photo is driving 208 km/hour

The road reform and extensive motorway network under construction

The government’s previous reconstruction, although very important, only allowed for the renovation of existing roads.

As of 2020, road widenings from two to four lanes are being planned. This will allow for adjustments in current speed limits to better suit the routes and make highways safer. As well, the construction of the first toll road in Ukraine, by a private investor, is planned to get off the ground in 2020.

In January 2020, Ukravtodor, the Ukrainian state company that is responsible for road construction and management, announced the development of an extensive motorway network.

This new level of commitment will not only bring about the repair of existing roads but will also allow for the two-to-four lane widening of major thoroughfares. This country-wide upgrade will mean speed limits can appropriately match the route.

Image: Hromadske

The widening of highways directly affects the time of travel between cities.

For example, a 477 km journey from Kyiv to Dnipro will decrease by two hours, from 6.5 hours to 4.5 hours. As well, according to engineering plans, particular attention will be paid to safety measures. Road construction will include underground or elevated pedestrian crossings, new road signs with reflective coating, and better lighting and road signals, as well as digital systems to monitor road safety and to detect violations. These measures will help increase comfort and safety and reduce road fatalities, as outlined in the Ukravtodor project proposal.

The government also announced that the 84 km road from Lviv to the Polish border will be built by private investors according to the public/private concession agreement. The road will be privately owned and managed for 49 years and tolls will apply. If construction gets underway before year-end as planned, the Lviv highway will be the first toll motorway in the country. The law on paid roads and public/private concession agreements, adopted in 2018, gave way to a new era in infrastructure management in Ukraine.

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Edited by: Sonia Maryn

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