This past Saturday (12th May) was a sad day, extremely sad day. I opened the newspaper to headlines of deaths in road accidents across the country. I opened the TV channels to numerous talk shows about what a sad state of affairs we live in. Fifteen people killed in one day – seems like a staggering number! But was it really? According to reliable non-government sources, such as Center for Injury Prevention and Research (CIPRB) and the World Health Organization (WHO), anywhere between 12,000 to 20,000 people die every year in Bangladesh – that is, 32 to 54 people per day! What was different this Saturday was that the accidents either happened in Dhaka, or killed prominent journalists and politicians. News of these accidents don’t generally make it to national headlines on other days, since they happen at local levels, they happen to the ‘masses’!
But what seems to be the underlying cause of this slow ‘genocide’?
In the newspaper reports and the talk shows, it was clear that much of the public anger was clearly directed towards the driver – did he get caught, will he get bail, will he be jailed for adequate number of years? The dominant view seems to be that if we can ‘fix the drivers’, the problem will be largely resolved – if we can catch them before escaping, if we can ensure that they are punished heavily enough, if we can ensure educated drivers with legal license, we will create a noticeably safe environment on the roads. But can we really?
What drives a driver?
Most drivers in the private bus sector are more like daily labourers with no sense of economic security and have to earn each day as much as they can since the next day, they may be without a job at the whim of the employer. The concept of a written contract between employer and employee is almost unheard of in the private bus sector. The working hours of drivers, particularly of those who drive inter-city, are unimaginably dreadful – typically, they have to do a 7 to 10 hr trip one-way and then come back – all within a 24-hour cycle only to wake up the next day with the same schedule. The issue of minimum wage for drivers is also something that I have heard very little discussion about in the ‘civil society’ circuits. The drivers generally get paid by number of trips – so the more trips they can make, the sooner they can make them, the more passengers they can take, the more money they can make. If drivers were paid by the hour, this whole perverse incentive mechanism of drivers to drive as fast as (in)humanly possible, could have been altered.
But who will negotiate with the owners, who will regulate this sector, where are those people on TV and newspapers? We scream for driver’s blood, we sometimes beat them to death, but have we ever even whispered about their rights as equal citizens of this country, who deserve a fair chance to survive honourably?
How fit is our Fitness?
The Accident Research Institute (ARI) have pointed out repeatedly that a large number of vehicles on the road do not have adequate fitness, that the entire fitness checking procedure by relevant authorities is incomplete, faulty and often riddled with scope for corruption, since there are (unbelievably) only 41 fitness inspectors for 15 lakh vehicles on the road. It has also been reported that fitness-checking machines that were bought with donor assistance are still left unused.
Right after an accident, how many reporters and investigators ask about the fitness of the vehicle? How many ask about the responsibility of the owner to ensure fit vehicles on the road? Is it not high time that we looked more holistically about why these accidents are taking place?
Slow danger in the fast lane
On the “VIP” roads and highways, we have all kinds of slow moving vehicles – ‘nosimon’ or ‘korimon’ (shallow-engine operated vehicles), rickshaws, vans, cycles and worst of them all, cows, goats and sometimes even ducks and chickens (!) makes overtaking mandatory for the driver. There are numerous cases where the slow-moving vehicles or animals have triggered accidents. On several occasions, responsible authorities of the government have made promises about banning these slow-moving vehicles or making separate lanes for them but just like a lot of other promises, there have been very little progress towards enforcement – not that enforcement is easy, given the importance of these vehicles in local-level economy.
Another slow-moving entity is the pedestrians themselves. The pedestrian attitude of ignoring foot-over bridge and crossing roads unsafely has been much talked about, but largely forgotten when we are actually on the road.
Inexcusable tragedy of Black Spots
The ARI along with other road safety experts have identified more than 200 so-called ‘black spots’ where more than three accidents per year take place due to a variety of factors such as sharp bends, obstructed views, mass gatherings etc. The ARI authorities have been shouting their lungs dry for at least a decade to fix these. What have successive governments over the years done about these? There is virtually no fixed allocation for road safety issues in the communications budget despite repeated demands from ARI and other civil society bodies.
How many citizens do you know who have come out on the streets demanding that these black spots be fixed, and how many citizens do you know who have come out on the streets in demand of a driver’s death or have taken law in their own hands when they have caught a driver red-handed? The driver who tries to desperately flee from the location of accident knows that general citizens care or know little about what condition they live their everyday life in.
Don’t get me wrong here – I am not advocating that drivers are always innocent and have no share of the responsibility. I am all for revising existing ridiculous laws that make death due to road accident a bailable offence and the highest punishment for this is three years jail or fine or both; I am all for ensuring that drivers have enough literacy to be able to read and write, I am all for legal licenses for drivers with adequate hands-on training.
But what I am basically asking is whether we, the concerned citizens, are asking the right questions when it comes to road accidents, whether we are pointing the fingers at the right places, whether we are being blind ourselves in our an-eye-for-an-eye approach each time an accident takes place, since this way we are not getting anywhere remotely close to the crux of the problem.
Mridul Chowdhury is a co-founder of non-partisan youth group named Jagoree and a member of Drishtipat Writers’ Collective.