Long way to road safety in Bangladesh: traffic accidents are still on the upward curve

Annual road crash deaths per capita in Bangladesh are twice the average rate for high-income countries and five times that of the best-performing countries in the world

Marium Sultanabdnews24.com
Published : 29 July 2022, 06:29 AM
Updated : 29 July 2022, 07:32 AM

Four years have passed since the student-led road safety movement began, and ended, amid a flurry of promises from the government culminating in the passage of a road safety law with somewhat harsh punishments for offenders.

But hardly anything has changed. Road traffic deaths and injuries in Bangladesh have been a “silent epidemic”.

Road crashes kill more than 4,000 Bangladeshis every year and countless more are seriously injured or disabled, according to data gathered by the Nirapad Sarak Chai movement.

On Jul 29, 2018, a few students of Shaheed Ramiz Uddin Cantonment College were waiting for buses near the Kurmitola General Hospital. They were on the footpath.

As they were attempting to board a bus when one arrived, one of two buses engaging in a race to pick up passengers ran over and killed two of the students, triggering the unprecedented student movement.

The protesters even showed up the police for having unlicensed drivers behind the wheels of unfit vehicles.

The number of vehicles registered until September 2020 was 4.5 million, according to the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority.

Valid licence holders, however, totalled about half that figure, which means more than 50 percent of Bangladesh’s drivers had no licence, let alone proper training that could have saved thousands of lives.

Also Read: Lack of skilled drivers spurs deadly road crashes in Bangladesh

Just two weeks ago, at least 29 people were killed in separate road traffic accidents across the country in a single day.

In one of those accidents, in Mymensingh, a baby girl was born on the highway seconds after a truck ran over her parents and 6-year-old sister. The infant suffered non-life threatening injuries but lost her parents and sister.

The High Court ordered Tk 500,000 in initial compensation for the baby, who is now with her grandparents.

In most other cases, victims’ families get a meagre amount from the local authorities for the last rites.

THE ACTUAL TOLL

In 2018, police records showed that 2,635 people died in road crashes. The toll nearly doubled to 4,138 in 2019. Most of the accidents occurred on highways and the drivers invariably fled.

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 2021, the death toll reached 3,502, or 14 people a day.

According to the Bangladesh Road Safety Foundation, 5,371 road accidents occurred in 2021 throughout the country. At least 6,284 people died in those accidents while 7,468 people were injured.

To put things in perspective, the annual road crash deaths per capita in Bangladesh are twice the average rate for high-income countries and five times that of the best-performing countries in the world. It highlights that children and the working-age population are most affected by road crash injuries in Bangladesh, according to the World Bank.

But the figures do not reflect the grief and hardships encountered by thousands of families after losing their loved ones to road accidents.

“Road traffic crashes are not only family tragedies, they hinder economic growth and sustainable development. Beyond those who are killed or disabled in road crashes, the stories of surviving family members reeling under acute economic shock are even more tragic,” Guangzhe Chen, the World Bank’s regional director for infrastructure in South Asia, wrote in a blog in April.

“For the economic prosperity of the country and particularly the physical well-being of the youth, I see addressing road safety as an imperative development agenda,” he wrote.

During his visit to Bangladesh, Chen experienced first-hand the high risk of traffic crashes on the congested, mixed-use streets of Dhaka.

“Even at very slow speeds, with a safe car and driver, we had two minor accidents where another vehicle hit our car. This reminded me of the recent grassroots movement that had surged across the country demanding better government ownership of the issue of road safety and stricter enforcement of traffic violations,” he said.

Barsha Roy Chowdhury, a 22-year-old student of Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University, was doing her chores after lighting the Sandhya Pradeep at dusk as part of a ritual at her home in Sunamganj on Jun 14, 2020, during the days of coronavirus lockdowns.

It was a neighbour who broke the news of her father Nripendra Das Roy’s accident as Barsha’s phone was switched off and her mother’s phone was not working.

Nripendra was taken to Sunamganj Sadar Hospital after being seriously injured in a collision between a small passenger transport and a mini truck.

After the initial shock passed, the family members hastily made arrangements for some cash and headed to the hospital.

“When we arrived at the hospital, I saw my father lying on the floor. Blood was dripping from his nose. His left leg was fully broken. He extended his hand towards me although he was nearly unconscious; maybe he sensed our presence. His hand was covered in blood,” said Barsha.

Her mother Smriti Chowdhury began crying uncontrollably and her younger brother Sharod Roy Chowdhury was visibly traumatised.

Doctors recommended transferring Nripendra to the MAG Osmani Medical College Hospital in Sylhet as the treatment facilities at the local hospital were not good enough to save his life.

Barsha hired an ambulance and they took Nripendra to the Sylhet hospital. “I tried to cry for a minute straight, but reality wouldn't let me,” she said. The family had to face the tragedy alone as relatives did not accompany them out of fear of COVID-19.

Nripendra died some 20 minutes after they arrived in the Sylhet hospital.

“He just passed away without receiving any sort of treatment. Nobody gave him any medication at Sunamganj, at least not to stop the bleeding. If there had been no treatment, they might have told us sooner or sent my father to Sylhet right away. He needed oxygen very badly, but unfortunately, there was no medical oxygen in that ambulance due to the COVID-19 crisis.”

The story of Barsha’s ordeal began to unfold as the family was grieving.

Nripendra was the only earning member of the family as Smriti, who worked at a private school, had not received her salary since March 2020 after the educational institutions were shut down due to the pandemic.

Barsha was completing her third semester at the university when the tragedy befell them. She returned to Dhaka in August and began living at her aunt's house.

She started working as a tour guide with a team that focused on heritage tourism in Old Dhaka. With an earning of around Tk 9,000 per month, she supported her family well, especially Sharod who was a candidate for the Higher Secondary Certificate examinations.

Barsha left the job and focused on her studies again after her mother’s salary started to come regularly, but the trauma would not let Sharod go back to his normal life.

This year, the devastating floods in the Sylhet region left the family tottering with no one to support them.

SAVING PEDESTRIANS: THE FIRST STEP?

As the scourge of unlicensed driving has persisted for decades, an expert believes the emphasis should shift to pedestrians' safety as it can save nearly half of the lives lost in road crashes.

According to Professor Hadiuzzaman, the director of BUET's Accident Research Institute, 49 percent of the victims of road accidents are pedestrians.

“Most of the time, they are killed while attempting to cross the highway. We’ve also found that heavier vehicles are involved in 59 percent of these accidents.”

"We are building expressways. We are more focused on increasing speed. But, we are ignoring our pedestrians. We do not build underpasses or footbridges for them.

“We forget during the implementation of mega projects that traffic is not only about speed, it also involves pedestrians.”

And road safety is not a transport issue alone. “The issue requires a holistic approach and committed action from trauma care and emergency services, traffic police and enforcement, road engineering and most importantly the collaborative participation of non-governmental stakeholders,” Chen wrote.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher