Lack of skilled drivers spurs deadly road crashes in Bangladesh

Bangladesh Road Transport Authority took out a procession on Dhaka's Manik Miah Avenue on Tuesday in observation of the National Road Safety Day.
Four years after Bangladesh declared a National Road Safety Day to raise awareness, the rate of deaths in road accidents has remained almost unchanged amid a lack of skilled drivers.

More than half of the drivers do not even have licences, according to a group working for road safety. 

Widespread protests erupted after the deaths of filmmaker Tareque Masud and ATN News CEO Mishuk Munier in 2011, and college students Abdul Karim Rajib and Dia Khanom Mim in 2018.

Over a month before Tareque and Mishuk’s deaths, 43 school students and another man died after a mini-truck that was carrying them back from a football match crashed and toppled into a roadside pond in Chattogram’s Mirsarai in one of the worst tragic road crashes in Bangladesh's history.

The drivers involved in these accidents were punished and the government changed the law, raising penalties for drivers for road crashes, but shocks and protests have ultimately brought little or no changes.

Film actor Ilias Kanchan launched Nirapad Sarak Chai, or We Want Safe Roads Movement, after losing his wife Jahanara Kanchan on Oct 22, 1993.

The government declared it National Road Safety Day in 2017. Government agencies and private organisations have been observing the day with various programmes since then.

But fatalities in road accidents increased in these years despite the efforts to raise awareness.

In 2016, police records show, 2,463 people died in 2,566 road accidents. The annual death toll increased to 2,513 in 2017 and 2,635 in 2018.

The toll nearly doubled to 4,138 in 2019. The victims that year included university student Abrar Hossain, whose death triggered large-scale protests in Dhaka.

Most of the accidents occurred on highways and the drivers fled in most cases.

The number of deaths fell slightly to 3,918 in 2020 amid long shutdowns over the coronavirus pandemic, but in the first eight months of this year, the death toll has reached 3,502, or 14 people a day.   

More trucks and covered vans were involved in accidents than buses in 2020.

In 2021, there were 975 reported bus accidents, while 1,315 crashes involved trucks and covered vans and 981 motorcycles.

Although the number of accidents and resulting deaths continued to rise, there has been no visible progress in terms of road safety.

According to the BRTA, the number of vehicles registered until September last year was 4.5 million, of which 51,668 were buses.

In contrast, the number of drivers with valid licences is about half that figure. And, there are about 2.4 million unskilled and unlicensed drivers, most of whom are plying the roads with buses, trucks and covered vans, according to Nirapad Sarak Chai.

Citing BRTA data, the organisation said a shade over 3 million motorcycles had been registered until 2020, compared to 1.7 million motorcyclists. In other words, the drivers of about 120,000 motorcycles were plying the roads without a licence.

Statistics showed as many 1,127 road accidents involved motorcycles in 2020, marking a 6 percent increase from the previous year.

While the drivers were blamed for most of the road accidents, very few have been taken to court.

There is hardly anyone who doesn't want to curb accidents and yet, there is a high tendency among drivers to violate traffic rules,  said Liton Ershad, an official of Nirapad Sarak Chai. However, things are gradually improving on this front, according to him.

The victims of road accidents often do not pursue legal proceedings and even if cases are filed, the majority of them are settled out of court.

The courts generally award compensation to the victims, as seen in the cases of journalist Mozammel Hossain Montu who was killed in an accident, and college student Rajib Hossain who lost his arm to a race between two buses and eventually died. But recovering the money often proves to be very difficult.

In cases involving buses, for instance, the owners tend to be slow to pay up and the matter drags on, sometimes for years, as a result.

Sections 52 and 53 of the Road Transport Act, 2018 entitles accident victims or their next of kin to apply for compensation 'financial aid fund'.

Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) works to collect legal compensation for the victims of road accidents. Sharmin Akhtar, a senior lawyer, handles legal affairs for the organisation.

She said most of the cases involving road accidents are not taken to court as a compromise is reached at the outset.

Again, the delays in recovering the compensation leave many plaintiffs frustrated and many eventually walk away. As a result, very few cases are started after the accidents.

"Most of the cases demanding compensation go to the High Court. This is because the applications are made on the basis of a violation of the constitutional right to life [which falls in the High Court's jurisdiction]. So the court considers the matter and issues a ruling accordingly," she explained.

While compensation could also be sought under the Road Transport Act, there is very little scope of getting it through that channel, according to Sharmin.