Can Passing New Laws Ensure Safer Roads in Bangladesh

Bangladesh, a country of 165 million people has an annual road traffic accident fatality rate per capita that is twice as high compared with high-income countries and five times that of the best-performing countries globally. Incidents rise sharply during Eid holidays, so what can the government do about road safety?

Road traffic accidents (RTA) that result in death and injury are a major public health challenge for Bangladesh. RTA occur when a moving vehicle on the road collides with another vehicle or object. Traffic collisions often result in injury, fatalities, and property damage. RTA are classified as the eighth leading cause of death or disability in the country. However, forecasts suggest that by 2030, RTA will move up to fifth place. According to the Bangladesh Road Safety Foundation’s (RSF) annual report, there were at least 6,284 fatalities and 7,468 injuries in RTA across the country in 2021, compared to 5,431 fatalities and 7,379 injuries in 2020. In terms of the costs related to traffic accidents, the World Bank estimates this might be as high as 5.1 percent of GDP. On many of Bangladesh’s busy and important roads, school children, factory workers and farmers compete for limited road space with high-speed cars and buses. The result is an alarmingly high fatality and injury rate across the country in certain sections of roads and highways. One tragic accident in September 2009 resulted in the death of then Finance Minister M. Saifur Rahman, whose driver swerved to avoid hitting a cow and went off the road and landed in deep water. Since then, the number of accidents as well as fatalities has continued to increase.

Safety Framework

Under the National Road Safety Strategic Action Plan, in 2016 the government of Bangladesh put forward a vision to halve RTA fatalities by 2020. It’s Road Transport Act 2018, which came into effect on 1 November 2019, replaced the Motor Vehicle Ordinance of 1983. Formed under the guidance of the National Road Safety Council (NRSC) and based on 111 recommendations, the new act sanctioned harsher punishment for traffic offences such as driving without a licence, driving or owning unfit vehicles, overloading, and parking violations. It placed greater emphasis on the vehicle operator as well as accountability for safety performance, and tougher enforcement through mobile courts for unsafe operator behaviour. Nevertheless, in response to objections from vehicle owners as well as transport workers, certain sections of the act were postponed to allow the government to develop rules for implementation. Furthermore, the NRSC proposed the establishment of a Road Safety Authority to take the lead in road safety and data collection. Another proposal included the establishment of a Road Safety Fund to ensure sufficient funds are allocated for resourcing, monitoring, and evaluation. However, there are significant gaps in strategic responses concerning safety regulations, vehicle safety, and post-crash response services, which if closed through urgent and strong government leadership, could pave the way for sustained road safety success in Bangladesh.

According to the Bangladesh Passengers Welfare Association (BPWA), non-roadworthy vehicles driven recklessly by unlicensed and unskilled drivers who flout traffic rules and are often under the influence of drink or drugs, significantly contribute to accidents. For instance, low paid workers like bus drivers feel the need to overtake other vehicles on the road to complete more trips, ignoring bus stops. Teenagers who are supposed to be in school, often can be behind the wheel of goods-laden vehicles simply to earn extra money for their disadvantaged families. Poor road safety performance in Bangladesh is linked to underinvestment in road infrastructure. Flaws in the construction of highways explains the lack of road signs, markings, lights at night on national and regional highways as well as a shortage of service roads. The BPWA have urged the authorities to implement the Road Transport Act 2018, increase financial allocation for road safety, enforce traffic laws, stop extortion and corruption in the sector, arrange training for drivers, and raise awareness through public safety campaigns for road users to prevent RTA.

Motorcycle Accidents

Bangladesh has the highest fatality rate in motorcycle accidents in the world, even though there are only seven motorcycles for every 1,000 persons in the country. This makes motorcycles the most vulnerable and dangerous methods of transport in the country which account for the majority of RTA. According to a newspaper circular of the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), there are currently 3.6 million registered motorcycles in Bangladesh, of which 1.3 million people drive without a licence. Recent research related to road safety conducted by the Accident Research Institute of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology with the support of the World Bank, looked into motorcycle use in 16 countries. For every 10,000 motorcycles in Bangladesh, 28.4 individuals were dying in accidents each year. Of the total number of fatalities, almost 40 per cent of them were between 24 to 30 years of age. Therefore, the fatality rate from motorcycle accidents is the highest in the world, especially as Bangladesh ranks the lowest in terms of per capita of motorcycle users (7 for every 1,000). For instance, in Vietnam there are 358 motorcycles for every 1,000 people. However, accidents rates in comparison are much lower at 4.1 for every 10,000 motorcycles. On 15 September 2022, the BRTA made it mandatory to have a valid driving licence in order to obtain a motorcycle registration number in an effort to further reduce RTA. Due to a slowdown in motorcycle sales and lobbying by the industry, the deadline was postponed until 14 December 2022.

Life-Threatening Eid Journeys

In January 2023, the BPWA released a report that disclosed at least 9,951 fatalities and 12,356 injuries occurred as a result of 6,749 RTA across Bangladesh in 2022. Compared to 2021, both RTA and fatalities increased by 18.89 percent and 27.4 percent respectively. In general, the frequency of RTA incidents rises sharply during Eid holidays when millions of people return to their homes in rural areas from major metropolitan centres such as the capital Dhaka, Chattogram, and other cities. According to analysis carried out by the BPWA for the period around the Eid holidays (15-29 April 2023), there were as many as 328 fatalities and 565 injuries in 304 RTA. Compared to the previous year, there was an 18.2 percent drop in RTA and a 21.1 percent fall in fatalities. The explanation for this was attributed to the high cost of living as well as the extremely hot weather, which meant 30 percent of people who usually travel during Eid holidays refrained from travelling according to the BPWA. Furthermore, extending the Eid holidays by a day was beneficial to passengers as it eased pressures on passenger services providers. Continued government intervention through investment and policy development over the past decade has led to improved road and highway networks. Law enforcement agencies have also strictly monitored Eid travel this year, all of which have contributed to lower fatalities and injuries on the roads.

Road Safety Protests

Although deaths caused by reckless bus drivers are not uncommon in Dhaka city, recently this has become the norm. On 4 April 2018, Rajib Hossain, 22, a student of Government Titumir College, was severely injured when a bus tried to overtake another and knocked Rajib down, detaching his right hand after it got stuck between the two buses. He died of his injuries on 17 April. Two days later on 6 April, a double-decker bus ran over Rozina Akhter, 16, who lost one of her legs and later died in hospital on 20 April. On the afternoon of 29 July, two Jabal-e-Noor Pariban buses were racing on Dhaka’s Airport Road. As the first bus reached its pick-up point, the second bus close behind ploughed into people waiting to board. It resulted in the instant deaths of Dia Khanam Mim, 17, and Abdul Karim Rajib, 18, of Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College, and injuries of a further 20 people. Agitated people torched the two buses which triggered widespread protests in the capital and across the country as students of schools, colleges and universities took to the streets demanding justice for the two dead students and an end to the issues plaguing the country’s roads – the lack of safety for all road users. Some students attempted to enforce traffic laws that were blatantly violated in the presence of the police.  Dia’s father, Jahangir Hossain Fakir, himself a driver stated, “Many bus owners recruit drivers considering relationship and recommendations of known people without properly examining their driving skills. By doing this the recruiters are virtually giving the unskilled drivers the license to kill”. He later filed a case with Cantonment Police Station.

Following the deaths Dia and Rajib, students from different educational institutions protested for safer roads and justice for the two college students. The protesting students blocked major city roads, enforced traffic laws, including checking driving licences as well as vehicle registration and fitness certificates. According to reports from protesting students, when the driver of a police bus was unable to produce his driver’s licence, he arrogantly stated, ‘his uniform is the licence, the arms of the police are the licence’. Because the students did not let the bus leave, his superiors had to come and resolve the issue, for which the bus driver publicly apologised. It demonstrated the role reversal of power from the police who were authorised to enforce traffic laws to students who through exceptional circumstances were doing the job of the police. During the protests there were reports of many vehicles vandalised with some torched, which brought Dhaka to its knees as public transport stopped operating. The momentum for safe roads spread among students across the country. The students in Dhaka had placed a nine-point charter, which included capital punishment for reckless drivers and enforcement of traffic regulations. Protesting students pointed out that the government were not actively doing anything to redress grievances, besides offering placatory statements even though the students had broad endorsement from their peers and parents as well as acknowledgement from Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, who implied the demands were justified.

The government responded by deploying the police and Rapid Action Battalion who used tear gas, water cannons and batons against the protesters. While ministers asked the students to ‘go home, the government resorted to its rhetoric of the protests as being a ‘conspiracy’ by ‘vested interests’ and ‘third parties’ to destabilise its programme of economic development and tarnish the country’s image. Over the following days police continued to use excessive force as well as turned a blind eye to the violence unleashed by activists of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (student wing of the Awami League) who attacked protestors and journalists and destroyed the equipment of the latter. Despite video and photographic evidence of the attackers, many of them remained unidentified let alone officially charged. When police were asked about the 29 cases filed at 16 police stations in relation to violence at the protests, and why it did not involve activists from the Awami League or its front organisations, a senior official of Dhaka Metropolitan Police on the basis of anonymity stated, “Does any officer has the guts to file a case against ruling party activists unless a political decision comes to that end?” In other words, this demonstrated that a crime is only a crime if the government system decides so. The same goes for the victims, the system decides if they deserve justice or not. It projected a culture of corruption, lawlessness, and a lack of accountability when protesting students supported by the general public are threatened when collectively challenging state authority.

On 5 August 2018, renowned photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam criticised the government response to the student protests in an Al Jazeera interview where he had described how the police “specifically asked for help from armed goons to combat unarmed students demanding safer roads”. A few hours later in the middle of the night, plain clothes police officers came to his residence, taped shut the CCTV cameras, and took him away without a warrant or any explanation. Eventually, Shahidul was implicated in a case under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act) for ‘spreading propaganda and false information against the government’. According to the Attorney General, Shahidul’s crime was ‘tantamount to sedition’. Shahidul alleged he was assaulted in custody and was denied adequate access to his legal team as well as his family. After his arrest, 10 Nobel Laureates and scores of global intellectual and cultural icons across civil society expressed their concerns and urged the Bangladesh government to release Shahidul. The global solidarity over Shahidul’s arrest once again brought renewed attention to Bangladesh’s poor human rights record. Even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s niece and British MP Tulip Siddiq on 28 August 2018, issued an unprecedented condemnation, calling Shahidul’s arrest “deeply distressing and should end immediately”. Human Rights Watch reported that around 20 journalists were physically assaulted for trying to document attacks on student protesters. The inherent message in the arrest of a high-profile activist such as Shahidul was clear. Anyone who dissents was in danger.

Insurance and Compensation

RTA deaths of so many economically active people not only place a huge burden on the injured or dead persons families, but also puts a heavy economic burden through losses on the gross domestic product. Section 128 of the Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1983 (which the Road Transport Act 2018 replaces), placed compensation liabilities on vehicle owners, especially if their insurance coverage was inadequate to cover their losses. Having vehicle insurance was mandatory for vehicle owners with the exception of government owned vehicles. On 13 August 2011, film maker Tareque Masud and a colleague were killed while several others were injured when the microbus he was travelling in crashed head on with an oncoming passenger bus. Masud’s Widow Catherine, successfully fought for compensation from the owners of the bus which killed her husband through the Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal. If Catherine pursued her case under the 2018 Act instead of the 1983 Ordinance, then the outcome would have been very different because the 2018 Act provides bus owners with total immunity by removing the road accident victims right to litigate for compensation in court. Furthermore, the 2018 Act made it optional for vehicle owners to have a motor vehicle insurance policy. Because there is no statutory obligation for vehicle owners to take out an insurance policy to cover probable risks, they were less likely to do so, especially as it is not illegal to operate their vehicles without insurance cover. The new law needs to include a necessary provision to make insurance cover compulsory with a fixed mandated standard premium covering financial liability for both physical and material damage.

Conclusion and Recommendation

As Bangladesh continues to develop economically and gain global exposure, the government must seriously consider road safety as its priority. To prevent RTA from occurring, the government should redesign and realign road infrastructure according to the requirements of a modern transport system. Government policies on infrastructure development need to place emphasis on eliminating exposure to risks on the road instead of increasing speed limits of vehicles. Policy-makers not only have to create laws that address road safety, but reform existing laws that compensate victims of RTA and punish reckless drivers. However, the Road Transport Act 2018, removes compensation liabilities from the vehicle owner whose vehicle caused an accident. Compensation is a right of the victims and their families, and by forcing transport owners to compensate victims of deaths and injuries, it holds them to account. Ironically, the new law grants immunity to the very people whose actions stimulate the root causes of RTA, which undermine the feasibility to make roads safer. The government simultaneously has to address the entrenched corruption in law enforcement and the transport sector, as well as resist the car, fuel, and road building lobbies, otherwise the enactment of laws is not enough without successful implementation of these laws. Enforcement has to be a top priority for the government and not a mirage of ‘road safety’ which it continues to promote in its narrative.

To ensure high standards of road safety in Bangladesh, the government must implement the following changes:

  1. Undertake review of motorcycle import and registration related to safety standards such as wearing helmets and overloading
  2. Review existing road safety standards and incorporate safety into the design and planning process and increase maintenance budget to support infrastructure safety requirements
  3. Develop a new road safety strategy as well as create a road safety awareness campaign for vulnerable road users
  4. Establish a national registry of accredited road safety auditors via a comprehensive professional training programme
  5. Undertake a regular vehicle safety fitness and drivers’ licence inspection regime as well as digitise vehicle safety certificates
  6. Launch a comprehensive training programme for commercial drivers and improve driver licencing and insurance systems
  7. Modernise the Highway Police with equipment, vehicles, systems, and professional training to proactively target speeding, drink-driving, using mobile phone while driving, and comprehensive use of seat belts and helmets
  8. Reclassify national and regional highway road types in terms of link and functions and introduce separate lanes and safe speed limits for slow-moving and fast-moving vehicles
  9. Install road signs and markings and retrofit road safety barriers and traffic-calming measures as well as have enough lights on at night on all highways
  10. End extortion and reckless driving on the highways by developing rules that will allow for the effective implementation of the Road Transport Act 2018, through legal, institutional and financial means.

Finally, the recent road safety protests underscore a significant endemic issue in Bangladesh, that of weak governance. The protests resonated to greater sentiments of anger and frustration regarding corruption, lack of accountability, transparency, rule of law, and political interference in the transport sector. Government apathy has enabled the car, fuel, and road-building lobbies to utilise significant amounts of money to lobby the government, hence, the status quo is profitable for the government of the day, which not only enable these systems and structures to remain rooted, but also to be nurtured. During the protests, freedom of expression was further limited with a spate of arrests of people with no political affiliation or agenda, who were victimised by the government for simply sharing content on social media that went against the government narrative.

The treatment of high-profile activists such as Shahidul Alam underlines the routine failures of the criminal justice system as well as the judicial process. As Shahidul stated in his Al Jazeera interview, “I think the government has miscalculated. It certainly felt that fear was enough, repression would have been enough, but I think you cannot tame an entire nation in this manner.” In hindsight, the Shahidul incident was more than the government bargained for and was more of a monumental public relations disaster. If Shahidul was not arrested and sent to jail, then the threat to the government’s image would have been minimal. The government hoped that by supressing a critical voice like Shahidul, it would continue to enjoy unhindered international praise for the good work it has done on the Rohingya issue, but its gamble clearly did not pay off.

Image by: Alit Saha from Pixabay

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