It’s a pleasantly cool and breezy morning and I look forward to enjoying the weather outside on my way to office. Eager to make the most of it before the rush hour traffic sets in, I leave early. No sooner do I exit the compound than the jarring sound of a horn greets me—a car behind ours, probably urging us to move faster! As we drive through to enter the main road, many more horns await us, despite it being 6:45 in the morning. The unexpectedly cool weather after a long spell of sweltering heat had made me momentarily forget about the annoying horns that plague our daily lives!
Let’s compare this situation with Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, and Orchard Road in Singapore. Both cities are bustling metropolises like Dhaka and the streets mentioned are amongst their main thoroughfares. But the stark difference is that there is hardly any honking in those locations, even during the busiest time of the day. The roads are clogged just like what we have here in Dhaka, but devoid of the sound of horns. Everyone is patiently waiting to move when their turn comes.
Blaring horns is the norm in the streets of Dhaka, so much so that we have taken it as a way of life. Be it an elderly or a physically challenged person trying to cross the road or some school children on their way, a honk has become mandatory, needed or not. Even in standstill traffic, people blow their horns, as if the car in front had the option of flying through and making way for the honker! So much is the level of intolerance amongst our drivers that even an ambulance on duty is honked at, knowing full well that it may be carrying a patient fighting for life.
The purpose of blowing a horn is to communicate to other drivers and road users about your intentions or to alert them of an impending danger. The appropriate use is to sound a horn which is just audible and only when required. Oblivious to this, our drivers in Dhaka are incessantly jabbing on their horn pads. The continued use of hydraulic horns, despite being banned, and other weird sounding horns make things even worse. Not only does such unnecessary honking add to the noise pollution but it also adds to the stress level of the city dwellers.
So, why this inappropriate use of horns? Ostensibly, it is the lack of awareness amongst the drivers about the negative effects of blowing horns, in addition to the dearth of social ethics. The level of education amongst most drivers in Bangladesh is very low. Owner-driven cars have a significantly lower frequency of horns than chauffeur-driven cars and in Bangladesh it is, unfortunately, the latter that dominate. That said, there are some more deep-rooted issues that prompt drivers to resort to incessant honking. The uncertainty in road conditions is prime amongst them. The speed of travel, particularly in Dhaka city, varies widely and can go down to a minimum of a few yards in an hour. The manual control of traffic compounds the menace with the streets getting snarled with vehicles. Ironically, there are electronic traffic signals installed at almost all intersections but these are mostly not in use. Understandably, the duration of wait at traffic signals is erratic and unpredictable. A fifteen- to twenty-minute wait is quite common. Under such circumstances, drivers get impatient and vent their pent-up frustration by honking.
The haphazard parking in the city intensifies the honking nuisance. Dearth of parking facilities is a huge problem in Dhaka. Even many hospitals and medical facilities have no parking arrangements. With cars randomly parked on the roads in total disrespect for other users, fellow travellers are forced to move through the narrowed roads, honking and inching their way through. Slow-moving vehicles such as rickshaws magnify the problem. Although most main roads are out of bounds for rickshaws, their presence in large numbers on the arterial roads create a chaotic state of affairs which have trickle-down effects on the larger roads.
As Dhaka is growing in its journey to become a global city, construction work is an essential component. However, the uncoordinated and haphazard way in which such developmental work is executed adds to the public’s woes. With pedestrians and vehicles similarly trying to manoeuvre their way through roads narrowed by stacked up construction materials or ongoing construction work or potholes or simply haphazard parking, it is not difficult to visualie the madness on the roads—and honking is an outcome of that.
Following traffic rules is the first recommendation that would come through to ease the situation and indeed so. The rules are all there but conditions for implementation need to be made conducive. Dhaka is probably one of the last remaining megacities devoid of an automated traffic signalling system. The traffic light posts, some with countdown timers, were installed several years back at a substantial cost. These need to be synchronised and put in operation with immediate effect. Not only is it physically exhaustive for a policeman to manually control traffic (and certainly inhuman in the scorching heat!) but it is also highly inefficient and ineffective. In today’s world of machine learning and artificial intelligence, an appropriate signalling system will bring about the much-needed discipline in traffic management. Traffic rule violations must be dealt with strictly and impartially. It is the inconsistent application of rules and regulations that generates impunity amongst drivers which subsequently forces a traffic policeman aiming to control the situation to bodily stop cars from not abiding by the traffic signal—a disheartening situation which can get risky for them.
Infrastructure building works need to be implemented competently and successfully within the shortest possible timeframe with full consideration of road and pavement users. In the event of temporary road closures, notices should be put up in clear view of oncoming traffic and well in advance for them to take an alternate route. In addition, social media could also be used for such warnings. Currently, Google maps provide the road condition (which is largely smeared in deep red!) but we need measures to minimise the red lines.
An important yet overlooked aspect are the pedestrians and it is the lack of facilities for them which promotes jaywalking. Indeed, a significant proportion of the honking is directed at pedestrians. There is a high need for construction of safe and user-friendly underpasses and foot over-bridges. There have been past instances of underpasses and foot over-bridges being a haven for anti-social elements. While these measures for pedestrian safety entail time, an immediate step could be to have zebra crossings and pedestrian traffic lights at all intersections for ease of safe pedestrian crossing with minimal disruption to vehicular traffic.
There is a dire need to generate awareness on safe and honk-free driving. The message to be inculcated is that human life is precious and must be respected. Unnecessary honking, particularly in quiet zones such as hospitals, residential areas, vicinity of schools and other educational institutions, lowers the quality of life. Massive awareness and training campaigns are needed to instil these values amongst the public and to impart lessons regarding traffic rules, road safety and the hazards of noise pollution. A sincere effort to stop the menace can eventually contribute to alleviating other traffic-related issues, most importantly traffic jam.
Bangladesh’s achievements on the socio-economic front are striking and undoubtedly laudable. But complacency arising from those achievements can become our undoing. The problems discussed in this write-up may seem trivial in comparison to the bigger problems of social welfare, but these do matter in the building of a more civilised nation. It requires a deep-rooted but a hard-to-bring-about change, particularly in our mind-set. Once that happens, it can trigger a series of positive changes that will ultimately hasten our ascent up the development ladder.
Firdousi Naher is a professor of economics, University of Dhaka. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org