What, exactly, the hell is a bus plunge? This primer, culled from a British daily, is as good a place as any to begin answering that question.
"THERE ain' no buses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay," wrote Rudyard Kipling. And it's just as well. A bus route from Britain to Burma would traverse some of the most mountainous terrain on Earth, along some of the planet's worst roads. Death would lurk around countless unlit hairpin turns. Horrific accidents happen everywhere, of course, and risk rides for free beside fare-paying passengers on all forms of transportation - even from the Bank to Marble Arch. In the industrialised world, however, bus travel is relatively safe, thanks to paved roads, motorway maintenance, street lighting, new vehicles, policing, driver education, vehicle inspections and limits on passenger numbers.
In the developing world, those factors are often absent and anarchy can take the steering wheel. Accidents proliferate, among them a particularly ghastly occurrence common to the rural Third World - the bus plunge.
An unscientific look at the phenomenon by the Independent on Sunday, based on news agency reports of buses leaving the road and plunging down cliff faces or off bridges in 1994, found 60 such accidents and nearly 1,300 deaths - more than twice as many fatalities as in all air crashes last year. One quarter of the plunges were in India, including the worst single accident. Sixty-seven people, mostly women and children, were killed when their overcrowded bus ran off a bridge and fell 35ft into the Kadwa Riv er near Nashik in Maharashtra state.
Luxury buses do ply the roads of the Third World, of course, operating on scheduled routes serving the larger cities and towns, or carrying tourists. And for many Westerners the thought of a long-distance bus ride evokes treasured memories of a Greyhound journey across the United States, a Magic Bus through Europe or the hippie trail to Kathmandu.
But in many places sheer poverty forces people to risk life and limb in ancient, poorly maintained vehicles that travel dark, unpaved roads in rain, fog and snow. Aboard these coffins-on-wheels is a cross-section of the rural people of Asia, Latin America and Africa - cultures, not countercultures, people who ride with the chickens in dilapidated public transport because they have to, not because it is a colourful experience. And they die, terrifyingly, in their thousands each year.
Such crashes occurred in at least 24 countries last year, taking the lives of Indians en route to a Hindu festival, Bangladeshis on their way to an Islamic conference, Kenyans going to a wedding, Indonesians leaving a wedding, South Africans heading for forestry jobs, Brazilians travelling to hear a political candidate speak, Chileans en route to work in mines, Peruvian anti-guerrilla militiamen, Ivorian students going home for Christmas. Buses have rolled off ferries into the Yangtze River in China and the Chitra River in Bangladesh.
In most cases, the causes of the accidents were easy to understand - bad weather, poor roads, bridge collapses, darkness, brake failure, animals or cyclists in the road, or speeding. In other instances, however, buses have plunged into rivers, gorges or the sea for more sinister reasons.
Five people perished when a bus went off a bridge and into a river in southern Guatemala. Survivors said the driver was so drunk that he fell asleep at the wheel. In Russia, a sleeping driver was blamed for a bus plunging from an overpass on the Novokashi rsky Highway outside Moscow. Fifteen people died. A Vietnamese smoker set a busload of alcohol on fire, panicking the driver, who jumped out and left his burning vehicle to plunge over a cliff and into the sea at Khanh Hoa. Twenty-eight people were killed.
Perhaps the most criminally irresponsible act, though, was committed not by one driver but by two in South Africa's Eastern Cape province. In rain and mist on the notorious Satan's Neck pass between Elliot and Engcobo, the two drivers changed seats while negotiating a steep curve. The bus went over a cliff, killing 58 people (mostly children) in what police said was the country's worst-ever road accident. The two drivers walked out of the wreck.
One more case deserves mention: a bus plunge as an act of terrorism, or in the words of the director-general of police in India, Srinath Mishra, "the most bizarre case of mass murder". Kuki tribesmen embroiled in a bitter feud with Naga tribesmen in the north-eastern state of Manipur herded more than 40 of their rivals into a bus and pushed it into a gorge, killing 34.
A reduction in the number of bus-plunge deaths in 1995 seems unlikely. Old, overcrowded buses with worn brakes and bald tyres will still take to the mountain roads and rickety bridges of much of the world. Drivers will still be drunk, asleep or distracted. And a new trans-Himalayan bus service, linking Kathmandu and Lhasa, is planned for the spring. The 625-mile Nepal-Tibet highway goes through four major passes and is about 16,500 ft high.
The longest regularly scheduled bus route? According to the Guinness Book of Records, it runs from Caracas to Buenos Aires - a 6,003-mile trip which the timetable claims takes 214 hours, including a 12-hour stop in Santiago and a 24-hour one in Lima. It runs in part through the Andes mountain range - classic bus-plunge territory.