Not many countries of the world can beat Bangladesh when it comes to people dying of road accidents daily. With my experience of travelling across the continents over the last four decades I also do not know of any other country, except India where driving is as reckless as in Bangladesh or the jaywalking is considered a birth right by the jaywalkers. Between 2016 and 2018 the total number of people killed on the roads of Bangladesh is 25,120 with an average of 698 per month. This is revealed by Jatri Kalyan Samity and Accident Research Institute of BUET. In India the number of deaths on the road is 400 per day.
All deaths on the streets do not make news headlines. Only if a student is crushed to death in Dhaka and his fellow students take to the streets to protest the killing and sometimes paralyse the city, the tragic event becomes the talk of the town and makes news headlines. Most of the deaths are caused by reckless and daredevil driving of buses. The drivers of buses and trucks consider themselves King of Road. As trucks are not allowed in the city during the day time they are not much in the news for playing an active role in killings on the road. The deaths caused by private cars are much less as the owners of the cars when they appoint a driver usually check if his papers are right and his skills meet the basic standards. The car drivers are not unionised and cannot take the citizens hostage whenever the law enforcers try to enforce traffic law, unlike their colleagues be it the bus or truck drivers. The union leaders are also very powerful and often enjoy patronage from other powerful quarters.On last Wednesday a young student, Abrar Ahmed Chowdhury of Bangladesh University of Professionals was crushed to death by two speeding buses while he was trying to cross the road at Progoti Sharani. Some say he was run over the zebra crossing while he was crossing the road. As usual the protesting students took to the streets and practically brought the city to a standstill. Only after the North City Corporation Mayor and the Police Administration assured them next day action will be taken to leash the reckless driving the protesting students deferred the showdown for a week. Many would like to term this as usual rhetoric as after each such incident similar promises are made but at the end the result is zero. The unions are too powerful. Bus or truck drivers are not the only people who are to be blamed for the accidents. The students who come down on the streets after each tragedy seldom show any respect to the law when they are crossing the streets. Crossing roads on a railway level crossing at a leisurely pace with earphones plugged in the ears is quite common amongst the young people, inviting an unnecessary threat to their lives. It is true that the city does not have enough foot over bridges but wherever there is one people are very reluctant to use them. Instead they would prefer to dash to cross and if they are unlucky and fails to perceive the speed of the approaching vehicle the inevitable might happen. Few weeks ago Dhaka Metropolitan Police posted at least fifty police personnel in Shaymoli area to prevent jaywalkers crossing the streets bypassing the nearby foot over bridge or the zebra crossing. But they failed to prevent a single person as no one took them seriously. They police watched in silence while the jaywalkers exercised their ‘right’ to cross the streets as they wished.
Wearing of helmets by a motor bikers or someone sitting on the pillion is considered unnecessary. In most of the countries, like Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, even in India wearing helmets both by the biker and the pillion rider is compulsory and any one not doing so will be fined instantly. In Singapore crossing streets, excepting using zebra crossing is considered a serious offence and fines will be imposed instantly and it can be as high as fifty Singapore dollars. In many countries of Europe wearing of belts by everyone in a car, whether sitting on the back or front seat is compulsory.
Unbridled corruption in the BRTA and amongst a section of the traffic police is just an open secret. Toll collection by a section of traffic police is considered their professional right. Anyone and everyone who can pay the right price can get a driving license, courtesy of BRTA. Most of the drivers who drive the human haulers (lagoona) on the streets of Dhaka and Chattogram are young, hardly fifteen years old who legally are not qualified to have a driving license. They are on the streets with their vehicles knowing very well they are at no risk of getting nabbed by the law enforcers whom they consider one of their own.
Most of the buses and trucks on the streets lack the usual fitness but that is not a big issue as there is no visible authority to check their fitness. Testing of eye sights and hearing ability is compulsory before someone is issued a driving license, even in Bangladesh. But this is never done. The government once tried to enact a law which would make it compulsory for all license seekers to have passed class eight. This could not be done or enforced because of protests from unions. No formal training is required before a person is issued a license. The senior driver who is known to his junior helpers as ‘ustad’ is the usual instructor. In an ideal situation before anyone applies for a license he should have gone through a specified hours of training in a government approved training centre or institute. However whatever steps are taken with all the holy intentions, corruption will be one step ahead. That is the basic problem and coupled with it, the lack of civic sense of the common people will continue to worsen the situation.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police have announced that jaywalkers will be fined instantly. This is a good decision but of equal importance is freeing the sidewalks from encroachers. May be this will be an unpopular decision but it has to be done without any favour or yielding to political pressure. Buses must use the designated bus stops to pick up or drop a passenger. A passenger who wants to drop off at places of his destination or someone who desires to board from his convenient location are equally breaching the traffic rule for their personal convenience ignoring the fact that they might be risking their lives. Buses usually have a name painted on their bodies. Like the one that killed Abrar on Wednesday had ‘Shuprobhat’ painted on its body. As soon a tragedy happens and metropolitan police announced that plying of ‘Shuprobhat’ is forbidden, instantly the name is changed into ‘Samrat’. This has to stop and all naming and name changes must be endorsed and registered by the BRTA. It is expected that once Dhaka has a Mass Transit System in operation things will ease to a great extent. Till then more ‘Abrar’ type incidents will happen and for a while there will be some noise and then things will calm down until another similar incident happens. Dhaka’s traffic system is in complete chaos. It may be difficult to clear the mess overnight but is possible to improve the situation. Begin with enforcing all the basic traffic rules and laws and it has to be done both with drivers, pedestrians, jaywalkers and cleaning up the streets of unfit vehicles. Return the pavements to pedestrians. Drivers seldom have any respect for zebra crossings. They would not hesitate to stop their vehicles on the zebra crossing itself. Wheels touching zebra crossing is considered a violation of traffic rules in many countries. Why this cannot be ensured in Bangladesh?
In my school days we were regularly briefed about the traffic rules and had yearly fire drills in schools. That was in the fifties when the cities or towns did not have more than few hundred vehicles and fires were not usual incidents. Schools in my days did not only focus on good grades but groomed its pupils to be good citizens. Today’s schools could not care less about these things. It is not difficult to restart such programmes in schools again.I know the tragic death of Abrar will not be the last incident on the street of Dhaka but if proper and immediate steps are taken to enforce all the traffic rules and laws the occurrence of such incidents may become more infrequent. Only the law enforcers will have to be more vigil in their duties.
The writer is an analyst and a