Even a country-wide lockdown couldn’t thwart the increasing number of road accidents in Bangladesh. The South Asian nation has one of the highest road accident and casualty rates in the world.

At least 295 people were killed and 488 injured during the Eid holidays from July 14-July 28, the highest number over the last six years, according to the Bangladesh Passenger Welfare Association, which keeps track of the number of road accident.

People started leaving the cities for their homes in the country side on July 14. Since the government imposed a strict lockdown and prohibited inter-city buses from plying on the road to inhibit movement, the volume of vehicular movement on highways was significantly lower than it usually is at this time.

Last year, 242 people died in 201 road accidents across Bangladesh between July 26 and August 7, travelling to or from their family homes in the country during the Eid-ul-Azha festival.

This high accident rates have caused anger and frustration among the citizens of the nation of some 165 million people, who have long been asking the authorities to take appropriate steps to curb the accident rates.

Unprecedented protest

Fuelled by a road accident that killed two high school students in late July three years ago, tens of thousands of students from high schools and colleges in Bangladesh came down on road for about a week in early August, 2018, to stage an unprecedented protest.

The government, quick in stepping up to stop the wave of protest had passed the draft of Road Transport Law, which had been in the making for years before it went to the Cabinet right after the protest on August 6, 2018.

That law, like a number of others before it, has lots of provisions to keep the roads safe, but there is a widespread resignation that these too will remain only on paper.

This notion has become prevalent because most plans to make the roads safer have remained unimplemented over the years even as road accidents in Bangladesh have been rising. This lethargic implementation has played a major part in making Bangladesh’s roads and highways dangerous, experts say.

Road accidents kill 12,000 people and cause 35,000 injuries in Bangladesh each year, says the Accident Research Institute of the state-run Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

After renowned filmmaker Tareq Masud and journalist Mishuk Munir died in a road accident in 2011, a nine-member high powered government committee issued a number of recommendations to make the roads safer.

One of its major recommendations was to form a Road Safety Fund by allocating to it 1%-5% of funding for any road construction project. The committee said that the Road Safety Fund should be spent on road safety awareness programmes and research work.

At present, over 300 roads and highway construction projects are proceeding under the supervision of the country’s Roads and Highways Division. The cumulative value of these projects is 45,000 crore taka (Rs 39,450 crores). If only one percent of the value of all these projects could be allocated to the Road Safety Fund, it would have around 450 crore taka (Rs 394 crores). However, no such fund has been formed.

Better training

Another major recommendation of the committee was to train drivers properly and streamline the process to issue licences so that the roads can be kept free of unskilled drivers.

According to the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, there are 26.40 lakh registered vehicles in the country. However, only 17 lakh driving licenses have been issued by the agency, indicating that almost 10 lakh drivers operate without licences. Five years ago, there were 14.23 lakh vehicles, and the number of license holders was 9.98 lakh.

In 2012, the government had planned to introduce driving training courses in technical schools and colleges under the Vocational Education Board. In 2011-’12, the country’s transport regulator, the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority suggestion, found that some 80 unauthorised driving schools in major cities were churning out hundreds of greenhorn drivers with faulty training.

About ten years have passed since then, but almost no progress has been made in setting up these courses. Bangladesh Road Transport Authority Director Mohammad Nurul Islam said there are 41 BRTA-authorised driving schools in the country, including 26 in Dhaka.

“But these numbers look small in front of hundreds of thousands of candidates,” he said.

Shamsul Haque, former director of the Accident Research Institute said that the authorities need to be more resolute in their support for safety.

“Accidents happen in Bangladesh almost in every day but some accidents create bigger buzzes in the media,” he said. “Immediately after those, the government takes some measure to stem the public outcry but in the longer run then they [government] tend to forget about its commitments.”

Haque earlier told The Daily Star, “There are many players in the road transport sector, but Obaidul Quader is the person to be held accountable” for the road accidents. Quader is the Minister of Road Transport and Bridges and the Secretary General of the ruling Awami League.

According to the Daily Star, Quader headed or was a member of almost all the important councils and committees formed to ensure road safety. He headed the Road Transport Advisory Council and the National Road Safety Council, two of the councils in the transport sector with the most powers.

Both the councils have been discussing very similar issues and making identical decisions including removing unfit vehicles from the roads, barring drivers with fake licences, pulling slow-moving vehicles off highways, preventing modification of vehicles, controlling overloading and stopping reckless or wrong-side driving.

But none of those decisions been implemented “either for a lack of political will or due to opposition from beneficiaries of road irregularities within the government’s power circle,” said the Star.

Haque told this correspondent: “As the Secretary General of the ruling party, Quader has lots in his plate. I am not saying he should resign but the government should be more serious about implementing the road safety plans. Otherwise people will loose trust that anything actually could be done to avert road fatalities in the country.”

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist in Dhaka.