Feature Img
Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

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?

Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

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?

Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

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

Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

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.

10 Responses to “Deadly roads, inert administration and blind citizens”

  1. Raihan

    This is a very timely piece. We always raise our fingers at the drivers but they are just a part of the vicious circle. We need to make everyone related accountable, not just look for scapegoats to shift the burden.

  2. Furkan Hossain

    Thank you for pointing out some key issues related to road accident. A social movement is important to find out the best solutions to reduce the road mishaps.

  3. Chandan Bashar

    Very few of our citizens raise right questions on any given important issue. The reasons for this include continuous distractions (towards wrong questions) that are created by the cunning politicians / corrupted govt. employees and their associates. Role of our media is by and large supportive to these distractions.

    Articles like this will certainly help to improve the situation, but I’m afraid this is not even close to enough. We need well planned collective efforts to fight against the very well organized racket.

  4. Ali

    If I can not handle the situation, that means there is essentially something that is not quite working.

    So, where is the PEACE we non-political people look forward to?
    Today, there are 20 to 30 people dying unnatural, inflicted deaths due to negligence, enmity, carelessness, petty wealth, land and property everyday. Those who do not belong to the human race are better off! All will be heaven bound.

  5. Abdullah-Al-Harun

    Thanks for bringing up the issue of rights of the driver community.

  6. Kalam Ahmed

    Pedestrians ignore or do not use over-bridges or underground tunnels because those are filthy, with large amounts of excreta and urine scattered around at all times. Furthermore they are also jammed with beggars and vendors and homeless people. It seems the writer has not used one in some time, or perhaps is based abroad where such facilities are usable.

    • Shams Huda

      I agree with Mridul Chowdhury and somewhat refute Kalam Ahmed’s argument that over-bridges and underground tunnels are unworthy of use and that’s why pedestrians are compelled to cross roads ignoring busy traffic. I think Mr Ahmed is talking about the Karwan Bazar and Farmgate over-bridges and underpass. Those are indeed filthy and dirty, but there are many other newly constructed over-bridges say in Dhanmondi i.e. Shat Masjid Road, Banani, Uttara where the over-bridges are new, quite clean and convenient too. Yet very few pedestrians take the trouble of climbing the stairs and cross the road using over-bridges.

      It was only the other day I witnessed quite a few parents crossing the road with their children after the schools were over. The newly built Shat Masjhid Road over-bridge was like two steps away, yet they didn’t bother using it. I use the over-bridge regularly and I can say it’s quite clean. And being a Dhanmondi resident I have witnessed regularly how during school hour rush parents, instead of using over-bridges, cross the roads hampering traffic and risking their and their children’s life.

      Along with the rowdy drivers, the pedestrians too are to a major extent responsible for the pathetic situation that we are in today.

  7. Sajjad

    Thanks to Mridul for pointing out our failures as a collective to raise the right questions. He did however fall short of identifying the right questions more concretely and I hope to see more. As suggestions, can the following be addressed as ‘right’ questions?
    From an ethical perspective, shouldn’t the onus lie on the owner of a motor vehicle who decides to put a potential human-killer on road? Will such a law force them to be more responsible while hiring drivers? Or, will the owners negotiate contracts with their employees/drivers to get themselves off the hook in case of accidents?
    Will the road authority issuing a driver’s license be made responsible? How?
    Will the insurance company be made to pay a steep minimum in case of any death and the policymakers leave it to the insurer and the company to negotiate premium?
    There are many more – but thanks again for raising a very relevant issue that concern all citizens who spend some time on the roads in Bangladesh.

  8. Akhtar Hossain

    Thanks for the perception about road safety that you have presented. Transportation of people and goods is a critical activity and an integral part of economy. If we look into the service that are at the same level of transportation, we definitely find that others like health service, education etc have reached a minimum standard in Bangladesh. But the concept of traffic control, management, and design and construction of transportation facilities are suffering from acceptable standard. In transportation system and service the driver is a critical component. This human component needs proper training and regulations/laws to obey. The responsible authority should have well planned and managed process to educate them before getting the permission to drive. The second crucial component is the vehicle. The vehicle itself should have a fitness that ensures its proper operation such as acceleration, deceleration, braking distance, etc.

    The thing that I want to say is transportation safety is a result of many factors. Therefore, its improvement needs an integrated approach in education, traffic control and management, road planning and design, vehicle and driver licensing. An absence of any one of these factors, the fate of a traffic either vehicle or pedestrian would be jeopardized.

    So what to do? I want to shout, “You dull authorities look out at the outside world, learn how others are working with transportation of people and goods, and do the same for your beloved residents”.

  9. Rouham Manzoor

    The writer of this piece has very rightly pointed out the problem that we have in our society. This person i.e. the driver who has been arrested is just a scapegoat. The real killers are the people who make it impossible for drivers to get licenses without paying bribe. Most of the drivers are poor labourers who have to earn a living. They know that they need a license, there is not even proper training facilities for these people to learn and they have to resort to getting licenses the illegal way and that is the ‘only way’ for them — giving bribes. The real killers are those who are responsible for creating and sustaining this corruption net.

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