Two months since the road safety movement, and the volunteers have harrowing stories to share
Jaywalking is deemed illegal in many countries around the world. In Dhaka, it’s a commonplace practice. “Pedestrians rush through the traffic as if they are invincible, and there’s nothing to be worried about,” said Ashraful Islam, a traffic constable working at the Banani intersection.
The 38-year-old said that he had worked at some of the busiest intersections of Dhaka for years, wincing and gasping as jaywalkers - including children and elderly pedestrians – play dice with death, defying all the rules and laws and causing deadly confusion among motorists.
The traffic constable estimates more than 80 percent of the pedestrians dash across the roads each day, choosing not to use the overhead bridge, even when it is just a few steps away.
The recent Road Safety Movement has in fact garnered popular support because of the threat that the traffic situation poses to the lives of people living in the city. Much of the blame for the anomaly in fact goes to the pedestrians, who often opt to run across the busy streets, squeezing through metal fences on the central reservations, putting themselves and motorists at the risk of fatal accidents. Even though jaywalking is equally dangerous for the jaywalker and nerve-wracking for the motorist, it is an offence that is rarely adequately penalized by the authorities in Dhaka.
In response to the recent youth-led movement to secure lives on road, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) began a month-long traffic campaign with a view to strengthening the drive against traffic and road anomalies. Some 322 student volunteers were employed under the programme to coach pedestrians on using designated foot-over bridges and zebra crossings at major intersections, while requesting motorists to abide by the traffic rules.
Standing on the verge of the traffic month, all of the efforts, however, have evidently come to naught as volunteers find themselves helpless -motorists and pedestrians seemed to defy their polite requests, in cases quite violently.
“We have been trying to stop unruly vehicles and persuade pedestrians to use zebra crossings and footbridges for almost a month now, but they just don’t pay heed to us,” said Salman, a Rover Scout volunteer heading a team of 13 volunteers at Banani intersection.
“However, our efforts haven’t completely gone in vain. After the one month intervention, I would say about 70% of the pedestrians at this particular intersection are now obeying the rules,” he added, fearing that the situation would revert to chaos once the programme ends.
Throughout the month, volunteers have been subjected to abuse both verbal and physical, from irate pedestrians who refuse to comply by traffic rule. Young people, especially university level students, who were observed to be particularly vocal during the road safety movement both online and in streets, constitute majority of the offenders, volunteers stated.
“There are people who commend us for our efforts and abide by the rules, and then there are people who get angry when we ask them to mind the traffic laws,” said rover scout volunteer Kazi Mohammad Mehedi Hasan.
Pointing to the second group, he added, “They hurl abusive words and even attempt to assault us. Unfortunately, people in the latter group are predominantly young, mostly university students.”
“Some call us government agents, while some threaten that they will see to us once the month is finished,” said Lucky Yasmin Nodi, a rover scout studying at Adamjee Cantonment College, adding that it has been a quite intimidating ordeal.
Muhammad Al Amin Kabir, another rover scout volunteer working at the Shahbag intersection, related how a young doctor almost assaulted him for requesting him to use the nearby foot-over bridge instead of the busy road.
“He just got angry and charged violently towards me, saying that he is a doctor, hence entitled to pass the road as he wished because he might have emergencies.”
In spite of the odds, in a city where traffic rules are frequently viewed as entirely optional, the young volunteers have made some visible achievements in terms of declining jaywalking and improved traffic management in some of the busiest intersections of Dhaka.
However, the sustainability of the improvements is uncertain as the traffic month is about to end and there’s only a handful of traffic constables at the intersections to handle the throngs of offenders.
A number of 30 volunteers were employed at the Shahbag intersection alongside the traffic constables and uniformed police at the time of writing this report. Once the traffic month ends, the number will be reduced to 5-6 traffic constables with the same, if not greater, number of pedestrians crossing the same intersection.
But how to prevent the flouting pedestrians from jaywalking? The volunteers, universally, stated that awareness alone isn’t enough. The number of traffic police has to be multiplied to discipline the pedestrians and motorists.
Proper implementation of the laws is also a prerequisite to secure the roads – from an official in the Road Transport and Highways Division, to a traffic police, to a pedestrian – everyone has to take responsibility and be aware of all the rules the law entails, and strictly follow them. Otherwise, there number of accidents will only go upwards.
“No matter how many hashtags we put on Facebook calling for a safer road, everything will remain the same until we decide to change ourselves,” said Nodi.