Changing Lanes

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An organic movement stirs the nation and captures the world’s attention. Will it lead to the change it seeks?

It is hard to contemplate that the long-awaited (and updated) Road Transport Bill, which received the Cabinet nod on August 6, came at the expense of two young students, whose lives were lost at the expense of two buses trying to beat the other in a “race” to collect more passengers.

The kids are alright

On July 29, college students went berserk as a bus ploughed through some of their fellows in front of Kurmitola General Hospital on Airport Road in Dhaka. The deceased were identified as Diya Khanam Mim, daughter of Jahangir Alam of Mohakhali and Abdul Karim Rajib, son of Nur Islam of Ashkona. Both of them were first-year students of the college Shaheed Ramizuddin Cantonment School and College.

Witnesses said the accident took place around 12:30 pm when an Uttara-bound bus of ‘Jabal-e-Noor Paribahan’ ploughed through the students as they were standing beside the road. They died on the spot.

They said the bus coming from Mirpur hit the students standing there just after it got down from the flyover on the busy road.

A Dhaka court granted a seven-day remand for two drivers and two helpers in a case filed over the two students’ death, which was passed on August 6. The accused are Jabal-e-Noor Paribahan bus drivers Sohagh Ali and Md Jubayer, and helpers Md Ripon and Enayet Hossain. On July 30, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested them in different parts of the capital in connection with the bus accident.

Thousands of school and university students have been protesting ever since, demanding justice and road safety measures, bringing Dhaka to a virtual standstill.

Some of the protesters, mostly aged in their mid-teens, have been checking bus registration plates and demanding to see drivers’ identity documents.

“We don’t want any vehicles without licences on the streets. Those unfit to drive should not get licences, and we don’t want underage motorists driving public transport,” protester Mohammad Sifat told AFP.

Saiyara Islam Roj, 17, told the BBC she had never protested before.

“I am joining because I see how dangerous our roads are every day when I go out. All we want is corruption to be gone and driving licences to stop being handed out like candy,” she said.

Saifur Rahman, 17, said that in parts of Dhaka, students had taken control of traffic lanes in order to regulate traffic and check drivers’ licences and had also cleared lanes to allow emergency services vehicles to pass through.

Even media personalities expressed their solidarity to the noble cause. Aranna Anowar, Sajjad Sumon, Chayanika Chowdhury, Shokal Ahmed, Bulbul Bishash, Shagor Jahan, Safaet Monsur Rana, Piklu Chowdhury and many more joined the protests in Uttara.

Also present on the streets were Saberi Alam, Monira Mithu, Rownak Hasan, Shanarei Debi Shanu, Sabnam Faria, Moushumi Hamid, Nadia, Orsha, Urmila Srabonti Kar, Mishu Sabbir, Tahmina Sultana Mou and Ahsan Alamgir.

Sabnam Faria shared her experience with the media: “It was mind blowing! I was stunned to see how these little kids doing an amazing job, there was lots of famous people or educated people who tried to protest several times in many aspects, but no one ever did anything in such organised way!! These kids proved they are much more mature than our law enforcement agencies! And their actions ensured us a bright future of Bangladesh!”

Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan - who has links to transport unions, serving as executive president of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation - then fuelled the outrage by asking, smilingly, why the public outcry had not reacted the same when 33 people died in a bus crash in India the previous day. He later apologised.

The general people continued to suffer for days as transport workers refrained from operating buses fearing vandalism by students demanding safe road and punishment of those responsible for the death of their two fellows in a recent road crash.

But later on August 6, Bangladesh Sarak Paribahan Samity resumed operating buses across the country, including Dhaka.

An act speaks louder

The new act has a provision of the highest 5 years’ jail or fine or both for any death or serious injuries caused by reckless driving. Under the proposed law, if death through road crash is proved as intentional murder then the offenders will be punished as per the Penal Code.

While talking to reporters after the meeting, Roads and Highway Department secretary Nazrul Islam said earlier the highest punishment for the crime was three years’ imprisonment, and now it has been increased to five years. Under the proposed law, it is a non-bailable offence while it was bailable one in the previous law, he said.

Opining on a crucial section of the Road Transport Bill approved by the cabinet Monday, Law Minister Anisul Haque has said if any driver is proved responsible for deliberately killing someone through an investigation, he or she would be punished under Section 302 for reckless driving.

“The law enforcing agency will investigate it based on information,” said the Minister while talking to reporters at the Secretariat on Monday.

“There was a provision of seven years’ imprisonment for the crime according to section 304 of the Bangladesh Penal Code in 1983 while the then government kept the provision of three years for negligence in driving in 1985 and now in the proposed draft it has been increased to five years,” he said.

“In the proposed draft there are two offences—major and minor offences for rash driving and negligence. If death through road crashes is proved then the offenders will be punished as per the Penal Code under Section 302 and it will be under Section 304 in other cases related to the crime,” he said.

“During investigation, if it is found that the driver could have avoided the accident or intentionally kills anyone, then the case will be filed under Section 302 and as per the importance of the case it will be shifted to the Speedy Trial Tribunal, if needed,” said Anisul.

Section 302 stipulates that whoever commits murder shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to pay fine.

According to Section 304, which deals with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, the offender shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to pay fine, if the act causing death is proven to have been intended, or of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death; or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both, if the act is carried out with the knowledge that it is likely to cause death, but without any express intention to that end.

The offending act will now be a non-bailable offense while it was bailable one in the previous law, he said.

Touching on other provisions of the new law now pending approval in parliament, a trustee board will be formed comprising owners, workers and government for providing compensation instantly, he added.

Addressing whether the students demands will be fulfilled through the proposed law, the Minister said “Of course the students’ demand has been fulfilled and if it’s a case of murder then Section 302 will be applied.”

The new law includes a 12-point system for a driving licence – a system that many countries have, said the Cabinet secretary.

For each violation of traffic rules – i.e. not using seat belts, talking on mobile phones while driving, driving on the wrong side of the road, ignoring traffic signals, racing, reckless driving, parking in the wrong place, bad behaviour with passengers, etc., – a driver will lose one point. After losing 6 points, the license will be suspended for one year. Upon losing all 12 points, the licence will be cancelled.

Unlike the existing ordinance, the new law has fixed the minimum age and academic qualification for a driving licence – one must pass Class 8 to be a driver, and Class 5 to be a driver’s assistant. One must also be 18 years of age for normal driving licence, and 21 for professional driving licence.

However, several aspects flagged by civil society groups remained absent from the bill. A multi-stakeholder group, working for the cause of safe road, on August 5 had made several recommendations to the draft Transport Bill 2018 in order to cover every possible aspect and eliminate legal loopholes, according to a press release.

During a press conference organised by Safe Road and Transport Alliance (SROTA) - the alliance of road safety experts and activists in the city, the stakeholders strongly advised on including key aspects of the Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1983, such as checking medical eligibility of drivers, more rigorous driving tests for obtaining licenses and such in the new bill.

Other aspects such as the role of transport owners in ensuring sound drivers and conductors for public transports, better traffic management, keeping medical first aid kits in all vehicles and designing public transports to accommodate women, children and handicapped people were also advised to be added in the bill.

Provisions for clarifying technical jargons, receiving and disposing of spot complaints, a road safety fund and many more were also advised to be kept in the legal framework. In addition, the issue of modernising of specialised investigation regarding accidents was also raised, as well as setting up of a compensation tribunal. Setting up of multiple transport committees including distinguished stakeholders and nationwide road safety committees have also been added to the recommendations.

Dr. Hossain Zillur Rahman, a former adviser to a caretaker government and the Convener of SROTA, shared the recommendations. SROTA has long been advocating for responsible and people-friendly road governance in Bangladesh.

Violent Aftermath

The new law was hurriedly approved by the cabinet after the protests took a violent turn on August 4 in Dhaka’s Jhigatala neighbourhood, with more than 100 people injured as police fired rubber bullets at demonstrators.

OIn the same day, a car carrying US ambassador Marcia Bernicat was also attacked by “armed men” but she escaped unscathed, the embassy said.

The violence continued Sunday (August 5) with police firing tear gas into a large crowd marching toward an office of the ruling Awami League party, an AFP correspondent said.

Police denied they fired rubber bullets or tear gas at the protesters. However hospital staff said dozens of people had been injured, some seriously, and injuries were consistent with rubber bullets.

In an effort to quell the unrest, 3G and 4G internet services were shut down for 24 hours since late Saturday, shortly after the violence broke out. Social media was filled with comments from Bangladeshis unable to access the internet via their phones, although wireless and broadband networks appeared to be unhindered.

A senior telecoms official who asked for anonymity said: “The BTRC has slowed down the internet at the order of the government.” The move may have been an attempt to try and limit the ability of students to mobilise or express growing online anger at how the government has handled the protests, hours after police and unidentified men wielding sticks and stones clashed with students.

Celebrated photographer and founder of Drik, Shahidul Alam, was taken to the office of the Detective Branch (DB) of Police, on Dhaka’s Mintoo Road, for interrogation. DMP Deputy Commissioner (media) Md Masudur Rahman told reporters that he was taken in for questioning regarding his student-protest-related Facebook posts. He was later remanded for 7 days, but the very next day, a High Court ordered him to be hospitalised, after he appeared for his remand hearing clearly unable to walk and complained of being assaulted by his captors.

Worldwide online phenomenon Nuseir Yassin, better known by the name Nas Daily as per his Facebook page, has released a video speaking up for the teens of Bangladesh protesting against reckless driving. His Facebook page ‘Nas Daily’ published the video Sunday around 4pm Bangladesh time. Upon release it took over the internet and in the first two hours crossed 621,000 views. The video was given the title ‘This Country Needs Attention’.

Nuseir mentions receiving hundreds of emails pleading to make a video on ongoing student protests in Bangladesh. He further says, “Students are on the street right now protesting. They want something as simple as their roads to be safer. Because there are too many people dying in reckless accident.”

Nuseir alleged that their protests were answered with violence while hundreds got injured. In the final part of the video, he applauded students’ use of social media to be vocal about their demands, praising it as ‘an amazing form of online grassroots activism’.

While replying to a comment Nuseir says, “For all other details, I decided to leave it to news agencies with due diligence. This video is meant to raise awareness first and foremost.”

Why all the fuss?

At least 40,000 people were killed and 60,0000 others got crippled in road accidents across the country over the last five years, according to Accident Research Institute (ARI) of Buet. Its director Prof Moazzem Hossain said the country also suffers an economic loss of about Tk 380 billion each year because of road accidents.

As per their research findings, Prof Moazzem said, over-speeding is responsible for 53 percent of casualties in road crashes while careless driving for 38 percent of fatalities and the rest for other reasons.

He said the incidents of road crashes and casualties can be reduced sharply by installing ‘Radar Speed-enforcement cameras in every two kms of national highways and other important roads, enhancing skills of drivers and producing capable drivers by setting up 100 driving schools across the country and strictly enforcing traffic rules and regulations.

Prof Moazzem, also a Professor of Buet’s Civil Engineering Department, said the informal vehicles --non-motorised ones, human haulers, motorbikes and three wheelers-- must be restricted on national highways, alongside stopping illegal carrying of passengers on the rooftops of buses and in trucks, putting up correct road signs beside highways and restoring discipline in the transport sector are also crucial to check road accidents.

“As per data that come from police FIR, around 3,000-4,000 people are killed and 10,000 injured every year across the country. But, if we analyse different studies carried out by various private organisations, including WHO, at least 40,000 people were killed while around 120,000 injured over the last five years in road accidents in the country. Of the injured, about half of them got crippled,” the ARI director said.

He said the government had set a target to halve the rate of road accidents by 2020 two years back, but it could not yet take any effective steps in this regard.

Besides, the ARI director said, 38 per cent road accidents take place due to careless driving as most drivers are neither properly trained nor given proper rest in addition to their disobeying attitude towards traffic rules.

As per the global practice, he said, no one should drive more than four hours without a break. “Every driver should take a one-hour rest after driving for four hours. But, drivers here do two shift-duties a day and drive three to four days consecutively taking inadequate rest. That’s why they lose concentration while driving, causing fatal accidents.”

To solve the problems, Prof Hossain said, ‘Radar Speed-enforcement Camera’ can be installed in every one-two kms of national highways and other important city and regional roads.

“This camera will be able to sensor the speed and number plate of vehicles even amid dense fog. Those who will violate the speed limit and traffic rules can easily be detected and punished automatically by sending fine ticket through SMS or by other digital means, which will help tremendously reduce the road crashes.”

He said highway police are unable to play any important role in enforcing law and checking road accidents for lack of manpower, proper logistics and technological support. “Now highway police are being used for security reasons as they mostly check vehicles for recovering drugs or maintaining law and order.”

Prof Hossain said everybody blames drivers for any accident but neither the state nor drivers, workers associations and leaders have taken any step or made any investment for providing them training to enhance their skills and sense of responsibility.

Quoting a study conducted by the ARI, Prof Hossain said the violation of speed safety limit by drivers is contributing to at least 53 percent of the total road accidents all over the country.

“The government has set safe speed limit on highways at 80km/h as per geometric design standard. But as our highways are not free from local frictions like roadside bazar, shops, and informal vehicles we think it shouldn’t be more than 60km/h. But, most drivers of both the heavy and light vehicles ply their vehicles with a speed in the range of 100-120km/h on highway as currently there is no field mechanism to detect and punish the speed limit violators,” he said.

Now it remains to be seen whether a new reality dawns, for a nation that clearly needs it.

Additional reporting by Wafiur Rahman and A.R. Jahangir.

  • Issue 5
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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