Over the last decade, Bangladesh has invested huge amounts of money in building and improving the communication infrastructure of the country, including on expressways, highways, flyovers, tunnels, and bridges, hoping that these infrastructures will lead us on the path to greater economic development.
In the process, however, we seem to have paid very little attention to the safety of vehicles and people plying these roads – the very people whom these developments were meant for in the first place. The same old ramshackle buses and trucks, manned by untrained or unlicensed drivers, are now driving on these state-of-the-art roads and bridges, leading to more and more untimely deaths of people from all walks of life.
The latest accident on the Dhaka-Bhanga Expressway, which left 19 people dead after an Emad Paribahan bus fell into a ditch, carries a hint of irony since the expressway leads to the Padma Bridge – our crowning infrastructural achievement.
The driver reportedly fell asleep while driving the bus and the vehicle neither had a fitness certificate, nor a route permit.
The government is taking up megaprojects for constructing road transport infrastructures, but there is little planning involved in managing the transport sector. Importance is being given to improving only mobility, not safety. As a result, the highways and the expressways have become more dangerous and riskier.
As the first expressway of the country, the Dhaka-Bhanga Expressway aims to make communication easier for the people of 22 southwestern districts. The 55-km long expressway, having all the modern facilities, was constructed with the aim of reducing travel time as well as ensuring a smooth and comfortable journey.
Constructed on the Dhaka-Khulna highway for an estimated Tk11,003.90 crores, the expressway has turned into a death trap.
Md. Shamsul Alam, an additional DIG of the Highway Police, told The Business Standard that after the opening of the Padma Bridge in July last year to February this year, a total of 86 accidents have taken place on the expressway, leaving 70 people dead and 80 with serious injuries.
The reasons for these accidents, according to experts, are a lack of experience on driving on an expressway, disregard for traffic rules, lack of enforcement of the speed limits, and breakneck speeding by drivers.
Professor Dr Md Shamsul Hoque, director of the Accident Research Institute (ARI) of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) said that highways or expressways are just one of the four components of the road traffic system.
The other components are vehicle fitness, skilled drivers, and the smooth enforcement of traffic rules.
“Except for the roads, the remaining three components are unfit: the bus is unfit, the drivers are unskilled, and enforcement of traffic rules is weak,” he added.
“We cannot make proper use of the infrastructure even though we have been investing millions of dollars because the rest of the three components are not conducive to it,” he added.
Md Hadiuzzaman, professor of Civil Engineering at BUET and former director of ARI, said, “We are widening the highways, but we could not remove the haat bazaars on the sides. It is an imbalanced development.”
The government has turned two lanes into four lanes, and now it is turning the four lanes into six. These projects are infrastructure-based ones that require substantial investment.
“For this reason, people have an interest in them. But there is no investment in management-based projects. As a result, people have little interest in traffic management,” Professor Hadiuzzaman added.
When the government is widening the highways, it is basically inviting drivers to drive at high speeds, he added. But the drivers are not skilled enough to drive fast and the vehicles are not fit enough either.
“Neither drivers nor the vehicles are ready for the expressways. And so, the highways and expressways are becoming riskier,” he further said.
Is the real cause unknown?
After a road accident, the government forms an ad-hoc committee to determine the real cause of the accidents. But there is no evidence-based investigation.
“If you want to bring down the number of road accidents, there is a global practice of having a national-level inquiry committee,” said Professor Hadiuzzaman. “Whenever an accident occurs, the committee will immediately go to the spot of the accident and launch an investigation. It won’t wait for anyone.”
And then there are questions about the people who are in the committee as well. It is people involved in the transport sector that are members of the committee, for example, representatives of the Bangladesh Roads Transport Authority (BRTA), the Roads and Highways Department, the Highway Police, and people from the transport owners’ associations.
“There is a big question of whether they have the capacity to investigate an accident. They need to have certifications for conducting such an inquiry as these are not normal issues; there are many factors related to an accident,” Hadiuzzaman explained.
He said that the task of the committee is to find out the real factors behind the accident, and simultaneously find ways to solve the problem.
“Most of the inquiries end up passing the blame to people like the drivers. I think it should be a top-down approach in which we should hold accountable everyone from the bus owners, because they employ the drivers, to even government officials.”
Professor Hadiuzzamam pointed out that it is the authorities that are issuing the fitness certificates and route permits.
“Don’t they have any responsibility? Don’t they know how many heavy vehicles and how many heavy vehicle drivers are in the country? Why does the BRTA give new registration for heavy vehicles?” he asked.
There is a national council, a ministry and a parliamentary standing committee, but that ecosystem has failed, he said.
“This ecosystem will have to work effectively. There will have to be accountability. We will have to find out the root cause. As the root cause is not being found out, we are failing to solve the problem, and so road accidents keep occuring.”
He also said that as management of the transport sector is a science, there should be no political intervention in the sector.
Politics, he says, won’t let the ecosystem work.
He also said that the countries which have successfully brought down road accidents worked with the vision of zero tolerance. Sweden launched the Vision Zero campaign in 1997. Later the campaign spread to the whole world. Many countries in the world have brought down road accidents by up to 80%.
“We have been repeatedly saying that the transport owners will have to fix the work hours and replace the contract-based wages with a salary-based structure so that drivers do not have to be on the road for so many hours. Most of the bus owners are directly involved in politics, so we could not make them do it. As a result, accidents will keep taking place – it is inevitable,” said Professor Hadiuzzaman.
He noted that there is indeed a crisis of drivers in the country, but transport owners cannot make someone drive a bus for as long as 30 hours.
“The bus owners have been saying for the last 30 years that there is a crisis of drivers in the country. The BRTA will have to take responsibility in this regard,” the professor said. “They know how many drivers are there against the vehicles. So, the government will have to slow down the registration process for heavy vehicles.”