Month Since July 29 Deaths: Roads not any safer
It has been exactly a month since two college students were squashed to death by a bus on the Airport Road that sparked an unprecedented movement by students to demand road safety.
The memories of the tumultuous days have hardly waned and the roads have returned to their old self -- unfit buses still plying, drivers sitting behind steering wheels without licence, and more than 300 road deaths have been added to the total tally in the last one month.
One of the major reasons for the anarchy on the roads is that the drivers run the buses by paying a certain amount to the owners and so they race through the roads to make as many trips as possible, stopping anywhere on the road to pick that extra passengers. This has not changed although the bus owners made a false promise that they would scrap the system and give appointment letters to the drivers and helpers.
Some things have changed though -- the amount of illegal payment for getting fitness certificates for vehicles. A Dhaka car owner who did not want to be named said she had to pay Tk 5,000 this time, instead of the previous year's Tk 1,500, to get the fitness certificate. The inspectors said her car's tyre size was different from what was mentioned in the papers and that it had a dent on the rear dampener.
The other change that has come is the cabinet's approval of the draft Road Transport Act 2018 -- something touted by the government as a big deal which it is not since there is no dearth of existing laws to check errant drivers and vehicles. What was lacking is the truthful application of the rules and laws.
The Road Transport Advisory Council headed by the road transport minister held its first meeting after ten months and came up with the age-old decision of stopping low-speed vehicles on highways.
That decision again proved to be on papers as in the past nine days (August 20 to 28) at least 10 accidents happened on highways involving slow vehicles, killing at least 46 people and injuring more than 40 (according to The Daily Star tally alone).
But what has not happened is what many thought the government would do -- form a high-powered taskforce comprising accident experts and examine the root causes for accidents and then set priority to fix the problems.
The adhocism and face-saving measures that the authorities are taking as eyewash can be found in the action of the police on the Natore highway where 15 passengers of a low-speed vehicle died three days ago. Soon after the accident, police forced all such vehicles off that highway.
Elsewhere in the country, these accident-prone transports ply as freely as before.
Apparently disappointed over the failure of the road transport and bridges ministry to ensure road safety and bring discipline in the transport sector, the Prime Minister's Office itself got involved in the process. It has already given directives thrice and formed a high-powered committee headed by PMO Secretary Sajjadul Hassan to monitor implementation of various government measures to ensure road safety.
But even in this volatile situation, transport owners and workers -- very powerful elements in the transport sector often backed by two ministers -- are doing everything to protect their interests. On the pretext of shortage of drivers, they forced the government to relax until December 31 the requirement of experience for getting licences to drive medium and heavy vehicles. This will make the road risker.
According to the National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railways, at least 315 people -- 282 men, 39 women and 54 children -- lost their lives in 282 road accidents across the country between July 29 and August 27. At least 819 more were injured.
The non-government platform, which campaigns for transport safety, compiled the data from 22 national dailies, 10 regional dailies and eight news portals and agencies.
But whatever little changes are happening, it is because of the student protesters, said one BRTA official.
“They gave us a jolt, which was necessary. Now, let's see what happens in the coming days,” he added, asking not to be named.
Jahangir Fakir, father of Dia Khanam Mim, one of the two college students killed in the July 29 road crash, said it was heartening to see that the government was taking some initiatives, including the drive against unfit vehicles.
“I hope that the government will not go soft. People have started to obey traffic rules, at least to some extent. However, it will take time and I hope discipline will be restored on the road,” he told The Daily Star last night.
“I want roads to be safe, even if it comes at the cost of my daughter's life,” said Jahangir, himself a bus driver for about 30 years.