Most drivers including those of heavy vehicles on busy highways lack institutional training and knowledge of traffic rules contributing to the increasing number of road accidents.
They enter the profession as transport helpers or conductors at an early age and become drivers in a few years. A large number of them obtain fake driving licences while many get it without following due process, transport workers said.
As many as 13.5 lakh vehicles -- bus, truck, private car, microbus, motor cycle and other motor cars -- are registered with the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) as of 2009 while the number of drivers obtaining licence from it is 9.5 lakh, said Ayubur Rahman, chairman of BRTA.
Of the six drivers The Daily Star has recently interviewed, none took the test, which is mandatory as per law, before securing their licence. Three of them had fake licence for several years.
BRTA's former chairman Sunil Kanti Bose at a meeting at the Anti-Corruption Commission in 2008 said 50 percent of the licences obtained by the drivers were not issued by BRTA.
Sanwar Rahman, 46, who now drives a passenger bus on Dhaka-Chittagong route, came to Dhaka from Kushtia only at 12. He started working as a tea boy at a transport labour union office at Fulbaria in the capital's Gulistan.
A few months later, he got a job of a bus helper on Dhaka-Mymensingh route. In five years, he became a conductor and soon learned driving from the driver of the bus.
"In 1983, I collected a fake driving licence through a broker. My ostad (trainer) then arranged me a job of a driver," said Sanwar, who studied up to class IV.
After seven years of driving using the fake licence, he obtained a “genuine” one for Tk 2,000 without taking a test.
Like Sanwar, 97 percent drivers come to the profession having no institutional training, says a survey of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) released last year. The survey found that 61 percent drivers get licences without taking any test.
"This is where lies the main reasons behind road accidents. First of all, most drivers have education up to class V or have no education, and then they don't have institutional training," said TIB researcher Rezaul Karim.
BRTA Chairman Ayubur Rahman says the drivers having no institutional training are not that bad. According to him, the bad thing is many of them have little or no knowledge of traffic laws.
"They drive well on the roads but they don't follow traffic signals," he said. They frequently drive beyond speed limit, and do not check fitness of their vehicles before plying the street, Rahman observed.
Against these backdrops, the government initiated setting up of training institutes for drivers in all the divisional districts, he said. Besides, BRTA will arrange motivational programmes for them.
Presently, Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC) has 17 training institutes across the country. In its Gazipur centre, mostly government officials are trained. The institute, however, has capacity to train 80 more people every month.
On an average, 60 people can get training from each of the 17 institutes per month, said Fatima Begum, instructor of BRTC institute in Gazipur.
However, to enroll there, one must have education up to class VIII, a reason why many uneducated drivers cannot take the training. BRTC provides a one-month training for medium and light vehicles and two months' training for heavy vehicles.
Driving under pressure
Many drivers operate under tremendous stress in the poorly managed traffic system that provokes them to drive recklessly often leading to fatal consequences. Many of them drive for 12 to 16 hours at a stretch, and the duration is even higher for many others.
"Driving is very tough now. In recent years, the Dhaka-Chittagong trip takes 12 hours at times.”
“A few years ago, it used to take six to seven hours. A round trip now takes around 26 hours, and a driver can rest only two hours or less in between,” said Sanwar Rahman.
A tired driver may naturally feel sleepy while driving, he observed, adding, he has driven for 24 hours without any sleep on several occasions.
“Vehicle owners treat the drivers like plastic that has no feelings."
Salam Mia drives a passenger bus on Gabtali-Chittagong Road. He hires the bus for Tk 3,000 a day. Salam starts his day early in the morning and never closes before midnight.
"I feel serious pressure because I've to make profit after paying the owner, buying fuel and paying extortion to "different groups" on the roads. We drive speedily when there is a chance, as traffic jam eats up a lot of time," he said.
According to a survey of Accident Research Centre (ARC) of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), overtaking performance of 61 percent of the drivers is bad.
The survey found that most drivers do not get a break in between their trips.
In addition, majority of them have no written job contracts. "They are in constant fear of losing their job, and this lack of self-confidence affects them unconsciously while driving,” it observed.
Ali Reza, a leader of transport workers' association, says transport workers come from the poor section of the society and get bad treatment from owners and passengers.
They live in the buses, terminals and slums and lead a life of the nomads, he said, adding, "A mentality may have grown in them that if they don't live well, why would others!"
“Drivers lack awareness, live uncontrolled life."
Shyamoli Paribahan is one of the few reputable transport services. Its managing director Ramesh Chandra Ghosh said they check driving licence and experience of drivers while recruiting.
Asked if they give appointment letters to the drivers, he said most drivers prefer payments on the basis of trips, as they can earn more -- Tk 12,000-15,000 per month -- while the regular monthly pay is Tk 8,000-10,000.
According to him, uses of mobile phones by the drivers while driving, their lack of awareness and "uncontrolled" lifestyle are the key reasons behind the rising number of road accidents.
BRTA Chairman Ayubur Rahman said mobile phone use by drivers is common while many of them take drugs, which is one of the main reasons behind reckless driving.
Hashis and phensidyl are the two most common drugs taken by drivers, a microbus driver, who works for an NGO, said.
Truck driver Rafiqul Islam who takes hashish said taking drugs does not affect his driving.
Asked what happens if someone takes excessive doses, he smiled and said, "Excess of everything is bad."