August 26, 2011 / 6:01 AM / in 6 years

Poor roads, lax laws hike Bangladesh death toll

DHAKA (Reuters) - Samia Halim struggles to hold back tears as she recalls the fateful night two years ago when a road accident in the Bangladesh capital took the life of her youngest son.

Saif, 19, was returning home after shopping ahead of the Muslim Eid al-Adha feast in November, 2009, when a speeding truck ran over him. He died on the spot.

“Saif was waiting to travel to Australia to start a graduation course when his life ended abruptly, and that made me virtually insane. I am still haunted by memories of him, unable to console myself,” Samia said, her tears spilling over.

“These days, I prefer not to look at newspapers because they are all filled with news of accidents. So many lives are lost every day on the roads because of reckless driving.”

Road accidents kill up to 4,000 people in Bangladesh every year, according to conservative estimates by state transport authorities. Observers say the toll would be much higher if the police recorded all accident deaths.

Most highways are dotted with giant pot holes, often swamped with water, and there are no traffic lights or signals. Worse still, vehicles are frequently driven by untrained drivers without real licenses.

In July, some 44 schoolchildren returning from a football match died after their vehicle slid into a roadside ditch. The driver held only a fake license.

Officials have been indifferent at best. Shahjahan Khan, in charge of the shipping ministry and himself the owner of a transport business, stunned the nation by asserting that anyone “who can identify cows and goats on the roads” could hold a driving license.

But public anger finally erupted after celebrated film maker Tareque Masud and noted TV journalist Ashfaque Munier Mishuk died in the same crash early this month as they returned from scouting a potential film location.

Their deaths were front page news in all Bangladesh newspapers, and furious editorials called for immediate investigation and punishment of those responsible. They denounced transport firm owners as greedy and accused them of allowing drivers to drive recklessly to overtake other vehicles.

“They just care for money,” said an official at the communications ministry.

The celebrity deaths triggered angry debate in parliament, with several lawmakers from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s party asking for tough actions to save lives on the roads.

They also demanded that Communications Minister Sayad Abul Hossain and his deputies be sacked for failing to implement road safety laws and perform basic maintenance.

ROADS A DEATH TRAP

Improvement efforts have long been hampered by bureaucracy and official infighting. Hossain acknowledged the poor infrastructure but said he could do nothing unless adequate funds were dispensed by the Finance Ministry.

A different group, the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA), is responsible for issuing licenses -- after proper training and tests.

All of these have combined to make Bangladesh’s several thousand kilometers of roads a death trap, said Hasib Mohammad Ahsan, Director of Accident Research Institute at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

“Engineering facilities have to be improved, with proper sign and marking on the roads,” he said.

“We can have formal and informal education for transport operators, and drivers need to be properly trained.”

But that is likely to be wishful thinking.

The BRTA last year issued registrations to nearly 50,000 vehicles, but government and private driver training institutes can train only 10,000 drivers, said Osman Khan, general secretary of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers’ Federation.

“The BRTA gave registration to nearly 1.5 million vehicles over the last few years but issued only one million driving licenses. So, who will drive the rest of the cars,” he said.

Calls for tighter licensing rules are accompanied by demands for higher legal penalties -- or for the ones currently on the books to be enforced at all.

Causing death by negligent driving currently brings imprisonment of up to three years, a fine, or both. But this is only on paper and frequently flouted.

In the end, ordinary Bangladeshis may have to take matters into their own hands through campaigns to raise public road safety awareness, such as that carried out by the group Families United Against Road Accident (FUARA), a victims’ group.

Under their mantra “Life is more important than time,” they are urging both transport operators and riders to be cautious on the rods, to avoid packing vehicles too full and to fight the urge to overtake other vehicles in their zest for reaching destinations quickly.

Though organizers such as Ekram Ahmed, convener of FUARA, realize they face an uphill battle, they will still fight on.

“If we can save just one life through our campaign, it will be a big success,” Ahmed said.

Additional reporting by Azad Majumder; Editing by Elaine Lies

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