With the Eid holidays coming up, higher chances of highway accidents remain a cause for concern
Despite clear instructions from the government, there has been little progress in curbing road accidents and ensuring safe travelling in Bangladesh, as the instructions have been largely ignored by the bus operators.
However, bus operators say they cannot implement the instructions unless the government initiate and aid the work.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, during a cabinet meeting on June 25, 2018, issued a set of directives to ensure safety on the roads and reinforce traffic discipline across the country, in order to reduce the number of accidents.
Her directives include proper work hours for long-haul drivers, mandatory training for drivers and assistants in public transport services, service centres and resting rooms at regular intervals on the highways, and strict monitoring to ensure that everyone follows traffic rules.
Stakeholders in road transport sector said they had yet to begin work in this regard, as they are trying to initiate a project under public-private partnership (PPP) to implement said directives.
The Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) and the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) under the Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges are jointly working on this initiative, sources told Dhaka Tribune.
According to Bangladesh Jatri Kallyan Samity (Bangladesh Passengers’ Welfare Association), at least 7,221 people were killed and 15,466 injured in 5,514 road accidents reported across Bangladesh in 2018.
Between January and April this year, at least 1,552 people have been killed and 3,039 others injured in 1,495 road accidents in the country, says the data collected by the National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railways (NCPSRR).
Following the government directives, there were some major events of accidents that fuelled nationwide outrage and protests demanding road safety.
The incident that garnered attention worldwide was a week-long protest, spearheaded mostly by school, college and university students, which spread across Bangladesh after two college students were killed by a bus trying to recklessly overtake another bus on Dhaka’s Airport Road on July 29, 2018.
Even though the directives are mostly aimed at improving the drivers’ capacity for safe driving, transport owners say they cannot implement the directives without the government’s PPP project.
Speaking to Dhaka Tribune, some bus operators said full implementation of the directives may take a long time.
Bangladesh sees at least 3,000 incidents of road accidents every year on average, which kill around 2,700 people and injure about 2,400, according to data provided by the Accident Research Institute (ARI) of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), based on police records.
The estimated losses from these accidents amount to Tk40,000 crore a year on average, which is about 2-3% of the country’s GDP.
The number of accidents and casualties typically increase around Eid holidays, as highway traffic increases due to homeward-bound rush.
Most accidents in Bangladesh are caused by reckless driving, oftentimes as a result of drivers trying to race other buses, said several stakeholders.
What the bus owners say
Transport owners said they need a fully fledged system to implement the government directives – and that can only be ensured by the PPP project.
Md Kafil Uddin, chairman of Hanif Enterprise, said they cannot set up resting rooms and arrange for reserve drivers without the government help.
“The staff members are satisfied with the current arrangement for long-distance trips as they get half-hour breaks. They are also provided food allowances,” he told Dhaka Tribune.
When contacted, Bangladesh Bus-Truck Owners’ Association leader Ramesh Chandra Ghosh said they do have some rest houses or have contracts with restaurants for drivers to rest, but are trying to arrange for permanent rest houses.
“We need to acquire land in order to set up rest houses. Until we can do that, we cannot fully implement the directives – i.e. construct the resting rooms, and hire substitute drivers and helpers,” he added.
The drivers’ take
The existing Motor Vehicles Ordinance does not allow a transport driver to drive for more than five hours without a minimum half-hour break, or for more than eight hours a day, or for more than 48 hours a week, in order avoid fatigue.
In reality, long-haul drivers typically work for 10-14 hours a day due to distances as well as traffic gridlocks.
Transport experts think working long hours is one of the major reasons behind highway accidents.
Transport owner Ramesh said, for example, a trip between Dhaka and Chittagong will require a change of driver if the government directives are followed.
Speaking to Dhaka Tribune, several bus drivers said they understand that following the directives will make their life easier and curb accidents.
But they are not ready to follow them as they will reduce their income.
“My income will be reduced by half if I am substituted by another driver halfway through a trip,” said a long-haul bus driver, requesting anonymity.
The usual three-member staff on a long-distance bus route – a driver, an assistant and a supervisor – get paid based on the number of single trips they complete.
For instance, on the Dhaka-Natore-Rajshahi-Chapainawabganj route, a driver makes Tk1,200 for a single trip, a supervisor earns Tk470, and a helper gets Tk430. There are no rest houses on this route. Everyone gets Tk70 as daily food allowance.
A driver of Ena Paribahan, also asking not to be named, said: “We already get meagre wages; we cannot share that with other drivers.”
When asked about the government directives, both bus owners and drivers said in order to implement the directives properly, many training and motivational sessions are necessary for the drivers and other staff members.
Both drivers and transport owners also seemed unaware of the importance of using seat belts.
Drivers said they did not feel comfortable keeping the belts on for long hours of driving.
Transport owners said they would arrange a special session after Eid on safety issues.
It’s a long process
Government officials have said that it will take two years to fully implement the directives.
Additional Chief Engineer Md Rezaul Karim, of RHD’s management service wing, said they are working to finalize the locations and designs for the resting rooms on the highways. “It will take two years.”
BRTA Director (road safety) Mahbub-E-Rabbani said they had organized training sessions for transport staff.
BRTA is providing training to raise awareness among drivers on driving rules, proper licence, use of seatbelts, avoiding reckless driving and drug abuse to avoid road mishaps, he added.
Kazi Md Saifun Newaz, assistant professor at Buet’s ARI, said the overall process will take a long time, and cannot be done if the resting places are not set up first.
“But there are issues like use of seatbelts, increasing awareness on pedestrian movement on highways, etc, which does not require much time to implement,” he added.