Idon't believe Bangladeshis are genetically bad drivers. The same Bangladeshi driver who drives on our highways as if his wife was giving birth to their first child in the back seat of a car will drive like a saint in any city in the United States. He will do so because the police there will stop him, confiscate his license, impose a heavy fine and threaten him with worse if he attempts to bribe him. It is, quite simply, fear of the law that makes him drive sensibly in any North American city.
Conversely, it is the lack of that fear that makes Bangladesh one of the deadliest places in the world on the roads. Road crashes in Bangladesh kill more people than any epidemic but the authorities fail to see it for what it is - a national crisis. According to a WHO estimate, the actual number of deaths in road crashes in Bangladesh may be around 20,000, one of the highest in the world although the numbers released officially are much lower. The fatality rate is around 70, affirming the country's status as among the riskiest in the world for road users. With the number of motor vehicles growing at 8 percent per annum, there is a serious risk that road casualties will increase.
What exactly are we doing wrong? First of all, we are hiding the actual numbers. And we have a tendency to oversimplify the reasons. Almost always, it is the driver who gets the blame for over speeding and reckless driving. But according to research by Accident Research Institute of BUET, there are other factors such as the condition of the road, carelessness of pedestrians and condition of the vehicle. ARI suggests forming specialised teams in every zone or police station to investigate the real reasons behind the crashes.
Journalists too can play an important role by producing reports that are more investigative and objective rather than emotional, ARI recommends. Instead of saying “the bus lost control and fell into a ditch” it would be much more objective to find out how the bus lost control. Was the driver drowsy from working overtime? Does he have a valid driver's license? Is the vehicle fit to drive? Was a curve too steep? Was a pedestrian talking on his cell phone while crossing the street? Questions like these would no doubt help find the real cause behind a crash.
And we should stop using the term 'road accident'. The word "accident" absolves the responsible parties of any responsibility, as if it happened beyond our control. But when we call it a 'crash', we know that mistakes were made. And if we can avoid those mistakes, we can prevent crashes from happening.
One of the most effective measures to bring down the number is zero tolerance enforcement. Most crashes are a direct result of lack of order. What usually follows a crash reinforces the degree of lawlessness: the mob beats up the driver if they can catch him. In some cases, the police arrest him. If someone dies or gets severely injured, they may get some kind of immediate payout from the owner of the vehicle or the driver, but nothing close to their loss. And no one sues them for damages or loss. Because the idea that victims of a car crash may have the right to claim compensation from the party at fault is mostly unknown in Bangladesh, although the law has provision for it.
In order to set a precedent, the families of Tareque Masud and Mishuk Munier as claimants filed two cases on February 13, 2012 before the Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal, Manikganj under Section 128 of the Motor Vehicle Ordinance 1983. On October 1, 2013 applications under Article 110 of the Constitution for transfer of both cases to the High Court Division were filed. Considering its importance, the HC issued orders to move the cases to the High Court from Manikganj.
Earlier, a criminal case under Section 304 of the Penal Code for reckless driving was filed in this regard and both the cases continue to move forward. “Under the Motor Vehicles Act (MVA) 1983, not only drivers, but also vehicle owners and insurers, are liable as responsible parties under civil law,” one of the claimants said, “Our case is a ground-breaking attempt to bring this long-neglected law to public notice so that in future, road crash victims and their families may have a means to be legally compensated for their losses.”
Hopefully these cases will lead to greater accountability established for vehicle/transport company owners and insurers, who will in turn, out of their own self interest, be motivated to support and institute measures for improvement of road safety, i.e. proper driver training, more rigorous enforcement of vehicle fitness standards, requiring first party insurance for all public transport vehicles and perhaps, goodwill of political parties.
Everyday people get killed on our roads. How much are their lives worth? Can anyone tell? Will they be back if their families file cases? “We are not doing it for money. We won't be able to bring back the dead,” the claimant said. “But at least for those countless thousands of victims and their families, we hope to establish some kind of precedent so that in future there is some hope of accountability and legal recourse.”
Someone has to pay.
The write is a member of the Editorial Team.