Road safety law fails to hold the guilty accountable
After nationwide protests and demands that finally saw the passing of the Road Transport Act four years ago, our roads are hardly any safer. Where exactly is the problem? Two road safety activists talk to The Daily Star.
Our inability to enforce the Road Transport Act (RTA) properly is one of the reasons why our transport sector is a complete mess right now. The act was passed in parliament in 2018 and became effective in November 2019. Under this law, cases are being filed and people are being fined. However, the progress that we expected after its implementation is yet to happen. We hoped that the law would reduce the anarchy in our transport sector by bringing down the number of road crashes and by holding the transport owners and workers accountable for their unlawful activities – charging exorbitant bus fares, driving without valid driving licences, driving unfit vehicles, etc – but in reality, hardly anything has changed. This is because of the selective use of the law and also because some crucial sections of the law were opposed by the transport owners and workers. Also, although four years have passed since the law was enacted, its rules have not yet been finalised.
Transport owners and workers have proposed to reduce punishment and fines for the offences committed by them. The proposed amendment is now with the law ministry for perusal. The recommendations made by transport sector lobbyists include reducing fines for overcharging passengers, reducing punishment for killing someone by reckless driving, scrapping punishment for giving fitness certificates to unfit vehicles, etc.
These proposed amendments, if approved and implemented, will only make the situation of our roads worse. The changes will benefit the transport owners and workers, not the general people. All of these decisions are taken by transport owners and workers and the relevant government agencies; common people do not have any say in the process. Even the organsiations and those of us who work for passengers' rights are never invited to any of these discussions.
Another major problem is that the law is not being applied equally. While the powerful people, including politicians, almost always get away with violating traffic rules, it is the general people who are being fined for not abiding by them.
Due to all these reasons, we are not getting the desired benefits of the law. In order to bring back some order to our roads and reduce the number of road crashes, the RTA must be fully enforced. We also need expert manpower to conduct research on the critical issues our transport sector has been facing. Currently, there is no expert in the road transport ministry or the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), who finalise and implement all the decisions.
There are also other areas where improvement is necessary. Currently, the way the BRTA conducts driving tests to issue driving licences is not the standard practice worldwide. In the BRTA offices, around 500 candidates are tested in two hours in a day. But in other countries of the world, one driver is tested by one inspector for at least a week. So, I personally do not see any difference between those who have a driving licence and those who do not in Bangladesh.
I think proper training institutes should be set up by the government, maintaining international standards. Likewise, the private training centres require government sponsorship, monitoring and standardisation. If we can produce skilled drivers, road crashes will be reduced significantly in our country.
Mozammel Hoque Chowdhury
Secretary general, Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity
During the road safety movement in 2018, I was a student of Chattogram Cantonment Public College. At that time, we said the incidents – or accidents, as many would call them – that took place on our roads due to the flaws in the country's systems were never accidents in the first place.
The truth is, it is a miracle that someone is able to survive the road system that exists in Bangladesh on a daily basis. Naturally, we want this state of affairs to change. To this end, we presented a nine-point demand, and we set an example for the state and the public as to how discipline can be brought back to our roads.
After that, the Road Transport Act was hurriedly passed to appease us. But that act only increased the level of punishment, and it made some bailable crimes non-bailable. The state knew full well that if they increased the level of punishment, there would be pushback from transport workers, which would bring us all back to square one. In the end, after amending 29 sections, what remains of the law is almost the same as what already existed before all this. We made the point right after the RTA was passed that simply increasing punishments and fines wouldn't bring about any change. If we want real change, we need to find out exactly where the flaws in the system exist, and then try to fix them.
If someone drives without a licence, or if an unskilled driver is issued a licence, who should be held accountable for that? Can the administration or the state escape their role in this? The only reason an unskilled driver can get a licence is because brokers at the BRTA illegally facilitate this. When this driver murders someone on the street, the BRTA should be held accountable for this, and in turn, the state. The passenger, the driver or the pedestrians who lose their lives, they are all victims of this system.
It's often said that transportation workers drive rashly, and the events of July 29, 2018 was also due to reckless driving and a race between two buses. If we try to understand why this competition between bus services exists, we must look at how the transportation business works in this country. A bus driver, at the end of the day, must give the owner of the bus a fixed amount of money. If they can't earn this amount, they make no money for that day; they can't put food on the table at home. Oftentimes, to make sure that this fixed amount of money is made, reckless driving is the only option. The system is turning these drivers into murderers. We keep pointing our fingers at the drivers, but we are not addressing the system.
Recently, students in Gazipur protested against the bus company "Taqwa," claiming its buses regularly run over students and transport workers. It should be noted that Taqwa buses have no route permits whatsoever, and even the BRTC buses cannot run on its routes. The question is: how can this bus company be so powerful that it doesn't even allow state-run buses to run on the streets?
Road safety activist