Who is to blame for unsafe roads?

Our policymakers’ apathy is the real problem
road accidents Obaidul Quader

There are few places as unsafe for a Bangladeshi as the roads and highways of the country, with at least 9,951 people dying in road crashes last year alone. Despite the ever-increasing procession of death on our roads, however, our policymakers seem to think that all is well with the sector, indicating the root of the problem – their apathy. In a statement following the horrific crash which killed 19 people on the Dhaka-Bhanga expressway on March 19, Obaidul Quader said that the road was not to blame for the accident and that enough initiatives were being undertaken to ensure road safety in the country. Instead, he pointed fingers at the BNP for using road accidents to further its political agendas after its movement failed, suggesting that the issue of road safety was in, effect, a non-issue.

We cannot say we are surprised by such a statement from our minister absolving his ministry and the government of any responsibility for the increasing number of deaths on our roads. We have noted with increasing alarm the lacklustre – and at times callous – attitude of our government in fixing the glaring issues ailing the sector, from crushing down the student-led road safety movement in 2018 to taking four years to simply formulate the "rules" of the Road Transport Act (RTA), to the repeated failures of the authorities to rid the roads of unfit and unregistered vehicles and drivers.

If we simply refer to the incident on Sunday, we can see that the registration and route permit of the bus had been suspended by the authorities following another accident only four months ago. Its fitness permit had also expired on January 18. The minister may be right in pointing out that the government is investing in building and upgrading national highways and expressways, and that the road in which the accident took place in itself is not to blame for the crash. However, the truth remains that no number of fancy roads can make up for the egregious lack of enforcement of rules by relevant government agencies.

An analysis of eight major crashes in the past few years by The Daily Star reveals that in each case, either the vehicles did not have valid documents or their drivers did not have licences. The report also highlights that thousands of unfit or unregistered vehicles are paying bribes to corrupt highway police members, BRTA officials, and politically connected people on a regular basis. Will our government take any steps to identify these officials and ensure that those found guilty are given exemplary punishment for their roles in the countless deaths of innocent citizens? We urge our minister to give us a concrete response.

There are a host of issues that plague the road and transport sector, but for any meaningful change to take place, what must change first is the mindset of our policymakers. Deflecting the issue will not result in safer roads, neither will ad hoc solutions and reactive measures that are not followed up. First, they must acknowledge the full depth of the crisis, including their own complicity in the matter, before they can take comprehensive measures to overhaul the corrupt and dysfunctional system. Anarchy can no longer be allowed to be the law of our roads.


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