There has been a demand for an effective road traffic law for a number of years, which gained momentum after the well-reported death of celebrated filmmaker Tareque Masud in an accident in 2011. All these years later - after being held back by resistance, and downright blackmail, from transport owners and workers - on March 26 this year, the draft Road Traffic Act 2017 was approved, in principle, by the Cabinet.
Tarique Masud’s death had managed to unite a wide range of people, including those in the ruling party, demanding a stricter law for the roads. Transport owners and workers, however, had held off till now thanks largely to two ministers in the cabinet who continued to back the workers and owners through many of their illogical and outrageous demands.
In a strange twist of fate, however, the draft law has managed to put the two ministers – Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan and State Minister for Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives Moshiur Rahman Ranga, and many of the most vocal activists demanding a new law, on the same page for their criticism of the law.
Both sides essentially want the law scrapped and redrafted, though for largely different reasons.
In a recent discussion, members of the civil society came down hard on the draft, demanding that road accidents should not be considered bailable offences, that there should be emphasis on passenger and road safety in the law, and that drivers and conductors should be educated. Most importantly, they wanted harsher punishment for accidents caused by driver negligence.
Civil society members are also discontent with the omission of the word “safety.”
Nirapad Sarak Chai Chairperson Ilias Kanchon said: “This draft not only omits road safety in its name, it has not considered the concept at all.”
Shahjahan and Moshiur are both staunchly against the draft law, but their focus, unlike that of civil society members, lies on softening the laws in favour of the transportation leaders and workers.
The ministers’ first point of contention was the draft law’s suggestion that in order to be eligible to become a conductor or assistant, the applicant needs to pass the fifth grade and in order to get a driving licence, the candidate needs to have passed the eighth grade.
While civil society members approved of this change, Shajahan, who is also the executive president of Bangladesh Transport Workers’ Federation, said: “A conductor or assistant usually becomes a driver within five to seven years. If he passed fifth grade and joined as a conductor, he is unlikely to go back to school and complete eighth grade. This means he will never be able to become a driver. This clause is clearly impractical.”
The second clause in question for the transport leaders was Section 53 which states that in cases of serious injury from road accidents caused by negligent driving, the punishment should be a maximum of three years’ jail or a maximum fine of Tk25 lakh.
The draft also proposes that deaths and injuries in traffic accidents should fall under the Penal Code, which has harsh penalties for negligent homicide and manslaughter.
The existing law, the Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1983 stipulates a maximum of six months’ imprisonment for wrongdoings related to reckless driving.
Noting that, Shipping Minister Shajahan and Cooperatives Minister Ranga, who is also the president of the Bangladesh Sarak Paribahan Samity, said such stipulations were unreasonable. They added that drivers could not afford to pay Tk25 lakh in fines, ignoring the fact that the proposed amount was a maximum range and that the actual amount of fine would vary based on the extremity of the offence.
While compensations for traffic accidents are a common practice around the world, there is no such precedence in Bangladesh. If it comes into practice, it could serve as a strong deterrent to bus and truck owners.
When questioned, Kazi Md Shifun Newaz, assistant professor at the Accident Research Institute of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, who was one of the experts consulted for the proposed law, explained: “We recommended life sentence for fatalities caused by accidents when the act was being drafted. But it was not included in the law. It is highly unlikely that police will file cases under the Penal Code when this law comes into effect; transport workers and leaders will influence them to file such cases under the new law as it does not have a provision of punishment in these cases.”
Road accidents have myriad reasons and virtually no bus driver plies the roads plotting to take lives. The Accident Research Institute in BUET says that while a lack of skill in drivers is a key reason, the principal contributory factors to most traffic accidents are poor road design, badly maintained vehicles and mixed traffic with a variety of vehicles.
Speakers at a public dialogue entitled “How Well Does the Road Transport Act 2017 Meet Citizen Expectations?” at BRAC Center on May 4 felt that thorough investigations should be conducted on complex issues like road accidents and stated that the draft failed to impose any such requirements.
Addressing the point on behalf of civil society, Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, former advisor to the caretaker government, pointed out how the proposed inequalities in punitive measures for traffic violations and vehicular offences were unfair.
“Section 56 stipulates that all offences by drivers will be considered bailable and another provision imposes heavy fines on jaywalking. When you impose small punishments on big offences and big punishments on small offences, all it shows is a clear lack of practical thinking,” he said.
Ministers Shahjahan and Ranga also spoke against the proposal to give police the authority to arrest drivers without warrants if they are found committing a cognisable offence and the fact that the BRTA would now be able to deduct points from licences for violations of the law. A licence which loses 12 points will be cancelled.
Stating that public transport vehicles outnumbered skilled drivers, they said that if licences were cancelled, it would lead to a scarcity of skilled drivers.
While the civil society is essentially demanding the law is changed to make it more effective, there are now real fears that the transport leaders, namely the two ministers, will piggyback on their criticism to delay the draft and eventually water down its more strict provisions.
The two ministers had organised a public dialogue on the same day as the BRAC Center event on May 4, where Ilias Kanchon was present, and they apparently have a number of such future events lined up as well.
Both Shahjahan and Ranga have been at the forefront of resisting any serious attempts to regulate the transport sector all this time.
On February 28 this year, a 30-hour countrywide transport strike was called when one errant driver was sentenced to life term in jail.
The strike was their attempt to send the establishment the message that they would not operate with the threat of a life sentence or the noose hanging over them.
While it was heavily reported that the Minister for Shipping, Shajahan Khan, and the Minister for Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives, Md Mashiur Rahman Ranga, had initially been supportive of the strike, they subsequently withdrew their backing.