Not even a month has passed since the eye-opening teenagers' agitation for road safety, here we are today quizzed by an unpalatable question: Are we more accident-prone now than we were before the stirring event of early August? It appears we are!
A report in this paper on August 29 states, “More than 300 road deaths have been added to the total tally in the last one month.” Allowing for the festival-time heavier casualties due to commandeering of vehicles suspect on road-worthiness, aside from the rush driving of overloaded vehicles, the figure is disturbingly high—averaging 10 per day!
When our children gave a jolt to the people who are supposed to be in charge of road safety early this month by a practical demonstration of how it could be done we thought the baton was passing to a new generation—spectacularly! Pleased as we were at the “heralding of power (of innocence)”, we knew it will run into a distraction but to their great credit they have done their part of the job—pinpointing where remedial actions should be directed.
Our expectations had to be realistic knowing full well that transport business being lucrative would keep transporters fiercely beholden to it. In fact, I have an interesting, if a little dreadful anecdote to share. A compatriot recalled, once in Johannesburg some time ago he had seen a man being killed on the street in a row over a route franchise in the local transport business. South Africans were known to spend 30 percent of their income on transport, indicative of the size of the commute business, and to that extent the interest of a stakeholder in it.
In Bangladesh too the lucre of transport business is substantial owing to subsidies and an increase in the transport bill of citizens. Hence, we see a multiplicity of companies—well over 400 operating on 2,000 routes, by one count. Such a big number of companies was considered unwieldy (so left to their own devices!) which is why late Mayor Annisul Huq set about the task of reorganising them in a lesser manageable and governable number—to around 20 along perhaps corporate lines. This found favour with the PMO which reportedly suggested Mayor Khokon pursue the line so that amalgamated entities could be monitored, supervised and koshered to make them competitive, service-oriented and efficient.
The first thing the students banged the stage with was a demand to prohibit the romping of, oftentimes an underage conductor or helper, on to the driver's seat, completely amateurish and unauthorised. With the steering wheel in their hands, accidents wait to happen as outright murders.
Add to this the contractual appointments of transport operators practically inducing a mad race to outdo each other in making trips and pocketing as much money as possible. The implications are severe for the commuters; buses making arbitrary and dangerous stoppages in the middle of the roads to pick up passengers. A decision has been taken by the government to introduce fixed salaries for the employees instead of binding them in a vicious contract that dehumanised what should have been a civic service with a human face. But if it were not to be window-dressing, the decision will be only tested on its implementation.
As for fake licenses, completely unauthorised driving or driving without any documentation, BRTA is working overtime to keep the rushing applicants supplied with necessary papers at an unprecedented speed, some tend to add, with palm greasing at a rate to match the strictness of the demand.
There is a catch in getting driving licences—the requirement of experience for obtaining licences to drive medium and heavy vehicles has been relaxed until December 31. Professional licence and one-year experience will suffice in place of three-years' experience as required earlier. But the licences will be for three years issued and obtained without the rigours of testing. This short circuiting comes with a three-fold cost: First, the risk of regularising the irregularities or legitimising the illegal status of many a unqualified driver. More to the point, status quo in a different garb is being presented with what results we will only get to know after hitting the road! But persistence with status quo is risky because it validates the licence for freedom, and with it impunity against culpability.
We see a contradictory policy relating to the resolve to strictly enforce the ban on slow-moving vehicles on the highways. Where do they go? To suddenly put them out of business could severely hurt the livelihood options of a very large swathe of people. Why not have separate slow lane on the highways for them?
Then how do you legislate against such moronic barbarity of a man having been pushed off a minibus, run over and killed following a spat with the driver's helper in City Gate area on August 27? Last month a North-South university student was thrown on to a roadside canal by the driver, helper and supervisor of a coach service. Deterrent punishment can din the right sense in the rogues.
Composite sensitisation committees at the ward-level may be tried out to foster mutual understanding and respect between segments of society.
Shah Husain Imam is Adjunct Faculty at East West University, a commentator on current affairs and former Associate Editor, The Daily Star.