Industry insiders and experts mull the implications of the prime minister’s six-point safety directive
Following a recent spate of highway accidents, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina issued a six-point directive to bring discipline to the transport sector and reduce accidents.
In conversation with the Dhaka Tribune, vehicle drivers and owners said they were eager to follow the directives and believed they would minimize road accidents and make their jobs more comfortable.
However, they said that before the directives could be implemented, the industry would need to restructure its wages and address a crisis of trained manpower.
The directives, issued on June 25, call for inter-district buses to carry substitute drivers, and limit driving time to five-hour stretches per driver.
They also called for adequate training for drivers and helpers, and asked authorities to ensure that pedestrians follow road-crossing rules, and that everybody wears seat-belts.
Another directive asked for rest houses for bus staff, and service centres at convenient locations along the highways.
One of the issues that industry people raised was that bus staff earn very little from making inter-district trips. If owners follow the substitute driver rule, they would have to halve the drivers’ pay.
The usual three-member staff on a long distance bus route – the driver, the helper and the supervisor – gets paid on a trip-based system. If the safety directives are put into action, each driver would have to share their pay with another, said owners.
The alternative would be to raise fares for travelers.
This correspondent visited different bus counters in Dhaka, inquiring how the trip-based pay system currently works and what would happen if the directive were to be fully implemented.
Mohammad Salauddin, a staff of Hanif Transport service, drives 15 days a month. Usually he drives on the Dhaka-Natore-Rajshahi-Chapai Nawabganj route.
On this route, a driver gets Tk1,200, a supervisor Tk470 and a helper Tk430 a trip. Currently there are no rest houses along the route. Everyone gets Tk70 a day for food.
“We have no chance to sleep; it is a stressful job. We drive, we barely rest, and we return to Dhaka. Because of traffic jams, we can make 10 trips in 15 days and each journey takes 6 to 12 hours,” said Hanif Paribahan driver Salauddin.
Supervisor of the same company Sohel Ali said he makes Tk470 per day, quite a low pay for a family wage earner.
“When the new move comes into effect, the bus will have two supervisors for each trip, so my salary will be cut in half. This will have a negative impact on our livelihoods,” he added.
Shyamoli Paribahan driver Hasem Ali, who drives buses from Dhaka to Cox’s Bazar - Teknaf, said he gets Tk1,400 per trip including food cost. The company has rest houses on the route.
“But when there will be two drivers for each trip, our salary will be halved. We do not want relaxation, we need money to survive,” he said.
The Bangladesh Bus-Truck Owners’ Association welcomed the move, but said they were not sure about how to implement the system.
Association leader Ramesh Chandra Ghosh said they would need two drivers per bus on the Dhaka-Chittagong route to implement the move.
“We cannot raise the trip money for bus staff, so what we can do is divide the wages between the two drivers. Even if we raise the money, it cannot be much. So the move will bring relaxation for the staff, but their earnings will reduce dramatically,” said Ramesh, also the managing director of Shyamoli Paribahan.
The company already has 30 rest houses for its staff across Bangladesh.
According to Bangladesh Passenger Welfare Association (BPWA), at least 339 people were killed and 1265 were injured in 277 road accidents during 13 days of Eid journey this year from June 11 to June 23.
BPWA Secretary General Mozammel Haque blamed poor infrastructure and reckless driving for the accidents.
On one hand, there is a massive shortage of trained drivers, and on the other hand there are only a few training centres.
“Owners cannot maintain two or three drivers for one trip, as the number of licensed heavy vehicle drivers is very limited. If the government wants to make this an effective change, it will have to ensure training for drivers first,” he said.
Kazi Md Saifun Newaz, assistant professor with the Accident Research Institute (ARI) at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) said ensuring substitute drivers and restricting drivers from plying on highways for longer than five hours at a stretch would be slightly difficult under prevailing situations.
“During eid journeys, drivers are stuck for three to five hours at the same spot. How does the five hour shift work then? Building rest houses everywhere is a long-term process. It is also not clear who will build the rest houses - the government or the owners,” he said.
He suggested that the government make sure that more heavy-vehicle drivers are licensed and trained by the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), by setting up more training centres.
“Also, we need more government-approved garages to make sure vehicles plying in the highways are fit,” Saifun Newaz added.
He said the six-point directive can only be implemented if a bus company is allowed to run along a single route.
Shawkat Ali, secretary of BRTA said drivers do not check vehicle fitness before starting their journey and these lead to accidents.
“They do not follow traffic signals, nor do they use seat-belts. They engage in overtaking,” he pointed out.