Combined efforts of the government and the private sector are needed to bring down the number of road accidents that have become endemic, say some leading experts.
They emphasise improving road conditions, updating the age-old motor vehicles law, punishing culprit drivers, preventing unfit vehicles from plying and strict screening for issuing driving licences to infuse discipline in the transport sector.
It is time to deal with the issue seriously, they said, hoping the government would show political will to that end.
The experts were speaking at the launch of the report, “Road Safety in Bangladesh: Realities and Challenges”, at The Daily Star Centre in the capital.
Brac, and Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) prepared the report on the basis of official data and media reports, interviews of stakeholders and drivers, and on-the-spot survey.
“Accidents are concentrated in 57 kilometres of nine national highways.” Forty-two percent of accidents are hit-and-run and 19 percent head-on collisions, says the report.
Around 20 percent of the drivers surveyed obtained licences without tests and 92 percent reported paying bribes for getting it, the report says.
In a presentation, PPRC Executive Director Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman said the majority of road accidents don't occur at isolated places. They rather happen at crowded points like bus stands, roadside bazars and crossings that are built in an unplanned way.
There is no comprehensive law on traffic and road transportation, he said. “A step was taken to update the colonial-era law but still it is only on paper … the highway policy is yet to become an effective instrument for ensuring road safety.”
According to the report, the main reasons for road accidents are reckless driving, untrained drivers, unfit vehicles, roadside activities, poor enforcement of traffic laws, faulty road designs, culture of impunity, lack of road safety awareness, plying of motorised and non-motorised vehicles on the same road, and mental, physical and financial pressure on drivers.
Zillur said law enforcers had no specialised training on application of traffic laws. Moreover, the culprit drivers don't hesitate to commit the crime again since they go unpunished.
The former adviser to the last caretaker government said post-accident period is crucial to saving the lives of victims, but the research found huge shortcomings in emergency treatment and lack of facilities in transporting victims to hospital.
There is also a shortage of trauma centres as well as trained doctors and nurses, he said.
Zillur recommended improving facilities at trauma centres with a focus on emergency and critical care, and setting up of top-class driving schools and a national traffic training academy.
Whenever an accident happens, everyone sees the driver as a villain. But one should consider things like trip-based income, overwork and falling asleep in vehicles as factors behind the accident, said Zillur, adding that 20 percent of the drivers are extremely overworked and prone to accidents.
He suggested inclusion of road safety in school curricula. There should be access roads to highways and separate lanes for fast and slow-moving vehicles.
The report said 97 percent of drivers surveyed claimed to have licences, while 20 percent said they had got licences without taking any tests.
Zillur said faults of black spots or accident-prone points on highways and roads should be fixed to reduce accidents.
Referring to the Dhaka-Aricha highway, he said the number of accidents on the road could be cut down drastically by correcting the faults of its black spots.
He said official statistics show that 3,000 people die a year in road accidents across the country, but the figure would go up to 5,000 or more if deaths on the way to hospital were taken into account.
Zillur also pointed out serious shortcomings in official data on road accidents. Non-fatal accidents are poorly recorded while little data can be found about the victims, he said.
Speaking as chief guest, Communications Minister Obaidul Quader said he had been trying sincerely to improve road conditions and bring about discipline in the transport sector.
On roadside bazars and unauthorised vehicles, the minister said he couldn't do his work due to interference in many cases. “I do party politics. I have limitations.”
In many cases, elected representatives stand in the way of administrative activities, he said.
Quader claimed that all highways were in good shape. He, however, said roads in some districts were in bad shape and he was trying to have those fixed.
Terming the Dhaka-Aricha highway a model of safe roads, Quader said he wouldn't wait for the Planning Commission or depend on allocations to fix the faults of black spots on the roads.
“Accidents have been checked on the Aricha road by fixing faults of 11 black spots. My next targets are Gazipur and Tangail roads,” he said.
Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, said an unfit vehicle is like “a mobile bomb” for passengers and pedestrians.
All efforts to ensure road safety would go in vain if the drivers were not fit enough. It wouldn't matter how good the roads or the vehicles were if the driver was unfit, he said.
He placed emphasis on good health of drivers, and removal of unfit vehicles and roadside markets for checking accidents.
Barrister Sara Hossain stressed the need for a tough law to ensure road safety and compensations to the victims of road accidents.
Moderated by Asif Saleh, senior director of Brac, the function was addressed by, among others, Prof Humayun Kabir Chowdhury, president of Bangladesh Society for Emergency Medicine, Ilias Kanchan, chairman of Nirapad Sarak Chai, Abdul Haq, director of the FBCCI, and Ahmed Najmul Hussain, in-charge of Brac's Road Safety Programme.