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Bringing discipline to our roads

  • Published at 12:02 am November 1st, 2019
Traffic dhaka city
Photo: MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

We need to create order and generate awareness

Last year, early in the morning on October 22, the phone rang three times in quick succession. Thinking that there must be some sort of emergency, I was ready for the fourth time. A torrent of anger reached me over the phone. 

“What sort of a Bangladeshi friend are you?” “You can only go on and on writing about 1971.” “Why don’t you live in the present-2018?” “Don’t you know that today is National Road Safety Day?” “Give us some advice. Write about road safety.”

Having driven Land Rovers, Jeeps, Toyota Sprinters, and motorbikes in Bangladesh and India over the last 50 years, I suppose that I should have something to say, although I am certainly not a road safety expert.

The first thing to say is that very few drivers in Bangladesh have been trained by qualified trainers about how to drive and many persons who have full driving licenses have actually never taken the driving test.

Driving licenses can be “bought” as can the annual “fitness” tests for vehicles. It is no surprise at all that there are so many accidents. There are thousands of vehicles that are “unfit” as any or all of their tires, steering, brakes, and lights are defective.

Recently, it is understood that fuel stations will not provide CNG or octane to vehicles unless they can show a valid “fitness” certificate. At the same time, it has been noted that there are not enough fitness inspectors so that they are always under pressure to inspect each vehicle quickly. 

It is almost certain that “speed money” is involved to obtain, what are, in effect, false certificates. It is in these places that are, allegedly, extremely corrupt, that police, RAB and ACC officials should be paying surprise visits.

Road sense

Often, the public is told to cross the roads using the zebra crossings. 

However, there are no flashing beacons and neither drivers nor pedestrians are aware of the Highway Code rule that says that pedestrians at a zebra crossing have the right of way and that vehicles should stop to allow pedestrians to cross.

In addition, pedestrians seem to have no idea about road safety. Safety on the roads and pavements need to be taught from a very young age and adults should set an example. Regularly it can be seen that people are crossing a very busy road when there is an overbridge a few metres away. 

While many drivers of all kinds of vehicles can be seen driving while talking on mobile phones, pedestrians are equally guilty while crossing roads. Also, where there are pavements for pedestrians to use, motorbike drivers and bicyclists seem to think that they have a “right of way” on the pavements too.

The amazing demonstration/enforcement of road safety by students at the beginning of August last year appears to have had little lasting effect except that a lot of pillion passengers are now wearing crash helmets. 

However, sometimes, common sense seems to be absent. When I took a Pathao motorbike ride a few nights ago, the driver was not wearing a helmet and I asked why. “Oh, it is after 10 pm, so the police will not stop us.”

At traffic lights (regularly seen at Gulshan-2 traffic lights) motorbike drivers and cyclists go through red lights whenever they like. Why do the police allow the motorbike drivers to get away with such dangerous driving?

When I talk to Bangladeshi friends about the lack of discipline and common sense of drivers and pedestrians alike, they tell me, “Julian Bhai, this is Bangladesh. It cannot change.” I reject this and point out, “Go into the Cantonment area and you will see that discipline and common sense are everywhere. Even rickshaws have lights at night.”

I remember that many years ago a member of the armed forces was killed as a result of dangerous driving in Kemal Ataturk Road in Banani.  For a few days after that, in some sort of reaction, the Military Police controlled the traffic in Kemal Ataturk Road. The transformation was amazing.

Children are the future

Adults in Bangladesh do not seem to be ready to learn anything about road safety behaviour. Therefore, children from a very young age need to be taught the language of road safety before they can understand the rules. 

For example, names of vehicles, names of street furniture such as pavements and curbs, and an understanding of fast, slow, looking, listening, and crossing need to be taught. A well-educated child age of five may already have a grasp of fundamental road safety rules, thanks to their parents. 

But others may not. Ideally, all children should be taught to understand the following:

1. Paths/pavements are for people; roads are for vehicles

2. Never go out near roads without a grown-up. Hold their hand and don’t let go

3. Stop at once if you are told. Never try to cross a road until you are told

4. Don’t run into the road or play on roads -- play in a park, field, or garden, if available 

5. You can help adults to look and listen for traffic to cross safely

6. Traffic lights and other crossings help people cross the road 

7. If you ride in a car, never undo your belt, and don’t play with door handles, or try to get out, or distract the driver. 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.