Ignorance and defiance in combination with irresponsibility can be disastrous, more so if wrongdoers can get away with murder with a little help from delinquent sections of the state machinery.
Two and a half days of vehicles queuing and hitherto unseen emergency lane enforced by students did create long travel delays, but did well to expose the depth of corruption and the mess we are in. What began as a school's emotional protest against the tragic deaths of two of their mates blew up into a nationwide angry demand for justice, supported by people from all walks.
There was scepticism when students were volunteering to keep order on the road, particularly even after their nine initial demands were accepted by the concerned. Some were simply not possible to satisfy in a short time, and that is where I come in today. People questioned, albeit in murmurs, for how long the children could carry on. My rickshaw puller, stuck in a long queue, was cynical too. I got down and walked from Katabon to Shishu Park.
The unprecedented balloon of hope burst no sooner than the students had gone back to their classes. The only aspect hanging on, but thinly so, is that a few more pillion riders are now wearing helmets.
Unfortunately, some school students with backpacks were caught on camera jumping over dividers, avoiding foot over-bridge, and jaywalking. I saw two of them stop a helmeted motorcyclist and take a ride on the back seat; no helmet and there were three of them on one bike. That just goes to show that we are not ready as a nation to become compliant on the street.
Wrong-way driving, despite court orders and the bravado of some police constables, will be considered a status symbol until the perpetrators are learned enough to see how bullishly foolish they look, and how dangerous it is. They have to understand that every person on the street is in an emergency to reach a destination, except perhaps the funeral convoy.
Bribing continues, or so it seems from the driver-police meeting of hands. It is rather pathetic how even rickshaw- and van-pullers are made to pay with the sweat of their brow. However, the need for valid papers has increased, as seen from the urgency and the rush at relevant offices of road transport authority.
Buses and trucks without lights, head, rear, indicator, and brake, continue to ply. Private car owners also do not worry too much if a light or two is broken or not working. Free-for-all driving was not going anywhere despite the lines of vehicles sans buses challenging the straightness of road stripes on those student-managed days.
Motorcyclists are the worst offenders on the road. They consider themselves as mere pedestrians with a motor stuck on their bottom. Driving on the pavement is a norm, as is honking ceaselessly to clear the road ahead. Court order? They will jump the red light or a policeman's manual signal and drive through the thinnest of apertures, most often risking their own lives and endangering others.
Our pedestrians are the only species in the world which can command a fast-moving vehicle with a single finger to slow down because His Majesty has decided to cross the busy road. Having said that, pedestrians are supposed to get the topmost priority on the road, but they too must know that the road is not only made for walking. Escalators are made to seem useless because no one installed a moving walkway to take them there.
Here, anything goes. But, this was a new one for me. The Bharat-Bangladesh “Souhardo” bus, doing the Dhaka-Khulna-Kolkata route had an ambulance siren blaring as well as a flashing red light, as it made its way through traffic. Huh? Someone must have tipped them that an ambulance enjoyed precedence on our roads. Since when?
Our movement to reduce road accidents and improve traffic behaviour must begin at the kindergarten level where five- to six-year-old children will learn the ABCs of a system. The culture of obeying rules must be inculcated at that early age. The lessons must become part of a syllabus at primary education. Students shall have to pass such a relevant course at secondary level. At each level the different courses may incorporate practical modules and motivational programmes. Children can also enforce regulatory behaviour on their parents and adults. The Ministry of Education has a major role to play in this regard.
Extensive mass media campaign, as undertaken for the hitherto successful population control and oral saline drives, should be a regular feature on our TV, radio, newspapers, periodicals and social media for the next 10-15 years. Drama, songs (vernacular and modern), poems, game shows, quizzes, etc., should form part of a cultural onslaught. We can maybe avoid the talk show regulars because people who can talk on any issue should be looked upon with suspicion.
Simultaneously, there should be posters, banners and leaflets for different age groups to encourage obedience to rules. Stadiums, sports arenas, cinema halls, museums, fairs (Hajj, industrial, agricultural) and any assembly of people should be an occasion for publicity for safe roads. We must understand we are trying to battle a deep-rooted illness that dates back to hatao Eengrez, bachao desh, when defiance was heroism, abiding by the rules was cowardice. The ministries of culture, information, home and their respective institutions will have to be in the forefront.
If only we undertake a comprehensive nationwide massive project from kindergarten upwards, only then perhaps in another generation we may see order on our roads. Such a development scheme must include road design and signage, training and awareness of drivers, vehicle maintenance and pedestrian behaviour.
Think of the 10 to 15 lives lost every day on our roads and highways. Think of families doomed for the rest of their lives. Think of the father never returning, the mother never ever hugging her child. Think of a son gone too early. Think of a loving daughter never again hoping for a gift on her birthday. The continuing 20-year road safety research, awareness and motivation agenda for improving our quality of life will be worth the while, time- and cost-wise.
Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed is Vice Chancellor at BGMEA University of Fashion & Technology, a practising architect, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.