Deaths with interruptionby Shama Obaed
Bangladesh, with more than 85 deaths for every 10,000 registered motor vehicles, has one of the highest rates of fatal road accidents in the world, around 50 times higher than the rate in most western countries. This is cruel, indeed. However, the Nobel prize winning writer, Jose Saramago, wrote in his book, Death with Interruptions, that ‘death has no need to be cruel, taking people’s lives is more than enough’.
We all know death is inevitable, and it can come at any time. Maybe that is why most of us fear death. But the deaths in road accidents every single day is very cruel, which is a regular phenomenon in our country these days. We are losing our citizens – men, women and children – every day in fatal road accidents. The studies of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) reveal high road accident fatality rate in Bangladesh, indicating more than 100 deaths per 10,000 vehicles. Every day, around eight persons die in road accidents. A recent study by the BUET’s Accident Research Centre shows that some 10,000-12,000 people are killed in road accidents in the country every year. Death, in any form, is unbearable, but going out of one’s home and not knowing if one will return home safe and sound is totally unacceptable.
Lately, we have seen a number of agonizing deaths due to road accidents. In a very recent incident, Touhid Uz Zaman, an undergraduate student of Dhaka University, died in a road accident in Shahbag area in Dhaka on August 29. Touhid and his friend Faisal, also a DU student, were run over by a commuter bus of Rajdhani Express while crossing the intersection. He was taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital and later shifted to Green Life Hospital where doctors declared him dead. Faisal sustained major injuries. In the recent past, the whole of Bangladesh mourned the loss of two of its great sons, filmmaker Tareq Masud, and phtographer Mishuk Munir, who were killed in a road mishap on the Dhaka- Aricha highway. According to the additional police superintendent of Manikganj, the accident occurred as a microbus carrying nine people including Mishuk Munir, Tarek Masud and his wife, collided head on with a bus from opposite direction.
There are people dying every day in road mishaps, but there are very few incidents of such deaths create sensation among the people at large. For example, Hajera Begum, a farmer from the Munshiganj district, was taking vegetables to the market with her husband Solaiman when the pickup truck they were on was hit by a bus. Five people were killed, including Solaiman. Hajera, who suffered broken ribs, lost not only her husband but also her livelihood. Hajera later told the media, “My family used to be well off. We had quite a bit of land, and we made a good living off it. But since my husband died, I have struggled. I have had to sell much of our land. Some of it was grabbed by local gangs. I am now worried for my future and that of my two children.” This tragic incident happened just a few months ago. According to World Bank statistics, annual fatality rate of road accidents is 85.6 fatalities per 10,000 vehicles. Hence, the roads in Bangladesh have become deadly. But these statistics, numerically shocking as they may be, fail to reflect the social tragedy related to each life lost to road accidents. One accident that remains afresh in everybody’s memory is the deaths of 44 school children last July, after the truck they were travelling in skid and fell into a pond at Mirsarai of Chittagong district. These young boys and girls were returning enjoying a football match.
Evidently, there has been an alarming rise in road accidents, significantly highway accidents, in Bangladesh over the past few years. And in order to stop this social epidemic, it is very important to diagnose the major causes of road mishaps. Some apparent causes are lack of appropriate road safety, reckless driving by untrained drivers, illegal driving licenses, corruption, poor traffic management and enforcement and poor road conditions and poor medical services.
A very important cause is the tradition of issuing driving licenses by Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) on easy terms. Thousands of peoples’ lives are put in jeopardy when the authorities issue drivers licenses without proper examinations and physical fitness tests. In all the developed countries, specific rules and regulations are followed while issuing drivers licenses. For instance, in USA and Europe, one has to go through a difficult driving test, road safety test, vision test and physical fitness test before receiving a license. Road safety test includes rigorous examinations on traffic signals, signs, rules and regulation on the roads. People less than 18 years of age cannot even apply for a driver’s license in those countries.
But in Bangladesh, unfortunately, thousands are receiving licenses without any proper tests. According to newspapers and BRTA records, BRTA has issued 30,000 driving licenses mostly to drivers of buses and trucks on ‘easy terms’ without holding proper tests since 2006. According to an affidavit submitted by the agency’s chairman Md Ayubur Rahman Khan to the High Court on November 28, 2011, thirty thousand, six hundred and eleven drivers succeeded in the test of competence but their tests were taken under relaxed conditions in keeping with the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the government and the Road Transport Workers’ Unity Council. When the shipping minister, Shahajahan Khan, who is also a top leader of a transport owners and workers association, publicly asserts that education is not necessary to drive a vehicle as long as the driver could identify a cow or a goat, it becomes very difficult to enforce and ensure adequate training for these bus and truck drivers. In November 2011, the High Court bench of Justice Mirza Hussain Haider and Md Nuruzzaman directed the BRTA to respond to a newspaper report, alleging that pressure from the shipping minister had resulted in the agency issuing 10,000 driving licenses to road transport workers without meeting the legal requirements. Besides, the report had said that similar requests had been made for 24,000 more licenses.
Another major cause of road mishaps is the lack of road safety and poor road conditions. Road safety remains an area of major concern, which not only causes the deaths of people but also affects the poor severely. The UK based Guardian, while examining road safety in Bangladesh in August this year, stated that the ‘road crashes disproportionately affect poor families, and cost Bangladesh almost as much as it receives in foreign aid’. According to the case studies done by World Health Organization (WHO), in Bangladesh, poor families were more likely than those better off to lose the head of their household and suffer immediate economic effects as a result of road traffic injuries. The loss of earnings, together with medical, funeral and legal fees, can have a ruinous effect on a family’s finances. The losses also include direct and indirect expenses, such as medical costs, insurance loss, property damage and loss of family income. The maintenance, repair and expansion of roads, along with setting up dividers on national highways, cautioning signals for hazardous locations, disseminating information on driving and road safety to masses through media and exemplary punishment for violating traffic laws are some of the main areas that need rigorous, and immediate, improvement by the government.
The country also goes through major economic losses when angry citizens frequently engage in violent protests on the streets and highways after the road crashes. For instance, students of Dhaka University ran riots, vandalizing over a hundred vehicles and torching the nearby police box, after Touhid Uz Zaman’s fatal accident on the other day. A similar thing happened in Chittagong when, on March 25 of this year, a university student died in a road crash at the Oxygen turning in the Bayzeed area of the city. The angered students blocked roads in Oxygen, Sholoshahar Rail Gate, Shershah Suri Road, Nasirabad and adjoining areas and damaged at least 20-25 passing vehicles, including Army and Navy jeeps and lorry. All such outrage and violence that occur after road mishaps can be avoided if the government can focus on fixing the conditions of our roads and highways, and improve road safety.
While the government, law enforcing and traffic management agencies are on the one side of the solution to the problem, the other side constitutes the users of the roads: drivers, pedestrians and city dwellers. Of course the government needs to have the vision and political will to reduce road accidents. But implementation of the law is not enough; enforcement of the law, corruption reduction in different agencies and strict penalty system must be in place as well. The government should target the main accident prone areas in the country and take an urgent initiative to fix the roads, highways, bridges and culverts wherever necessary. The traffic police department has a crucial role to play in identifying and holding accountable reckless drivers and speeding, unstable and/or overloaded vehicles.
As citizens, we too have a role to play in ensuring road safety. While travelling in public transports, passengers should protest and stop speeding and reckless driving by bus and taxi drivers. Owners of motor vehicles should ensure that employed drivers have genuine licenses, are properly trained and drive responsibly. Road safety education to pedestrians, especially children, within the communities by community leaders is also a good way to promote a healthier road atmosphere. In this case, the government can help promote awareness of road safety through different awareness programs such as advertisements, seminars and classes.
Two key ingredients to any road safety effort are political will and honest intentions. All the awareness in the world will not save lives if it is not backed up by thoughtful policies and tenacious enforcement. The International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP) carried out assessments on the Dhaka-Sylhet and the Dhaka-Mymensingh highways, identifying design and maintenance flaws that are contributing to the growing toll of death and disability. Greg Smith, Asia-Pacific regional director of iRAP, who led the study, said, “We don’t want gold-plated roads. With a scientific approach, sometimes a coat of white paint will save lives. We know how people are killed, and what can be done to stop it. All we need is the political will to implement these countermeasures.”
The government needs to play a proactive role in reducing deaths caused by road accidents in our country. We, the citizens of this country, do not want to see our people embrace tragic deaths every day on the roads and highways, particularly when we know that government’s sincerity and our united efforts and hard work can change the phenomenon.
The writer is the president of the Jatiyatabadi Muktijoddher Projonmo and a member of the central committee of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
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