Road fatalities have devastated numerous families in the country through deaths as well as injuries crippling their earning members and loved ones. Being pressurised by the various road safety campaigns and motions sparked by tragic road crashes, the government has undertaken various initiatives to address the issue. National committees and sub-committees have been formed, numerous seminars, symposiums and discussions have been held, and myriads of recommendations from various task forces have been made. But as the road safety programme hasn't been developed in a systematic manner—by putting the responsibility on the shoulder of a capable public entity, ensuring transparent and sustainable fund flow, and rolling out targeted and effective strategies—little progress has been made in this regard.
It was a natural expectation that Bangladesh would go through a systematic implementation of the road safety programme alongside the speedy infrastructure development programme initiated by the present government. The expectation was further heightened when Bangladesh committed to the global plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020 at the UN general assembly of 2010. The UN initiative was set to contribute to two SDG targets concerning road safety: Target 3.6 was aimed at reducing global crash-related deaths and injuries to half, while Target 11.2 was aimed at providing access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems as well as improving road safety for all. While the government has met many other SDG targets successfully, unfortunately, the road safety targets remain unmet by a big margin due to lapses in undertaking a professional and systematic road safety programme as well as monitoring the implementation of the same. A systematic approach should, ideally, address the interaction among speed, vehicles, road infrastructure and road user behaviour leading to reductions in road crashes.
An analysis of Bangladesh's crash data involving the above factors, as maintained by the ARI of BUET, reveals that the majority of fatal crashes take place due to over-speeding, errant drivers and vulnerable road user behaviour. A shortage of formally trained drivers, lack of effective speed enforcement measures, poor governance of formal and informal vehicle fleet growth, and absence of a safer environment on the roads are some of the major contributing factors. Although the problems are well-known, the solution is not a straightforward one because of the involvement of numerous stakeholders, many of them politically linked. Also, the transport sector is bedevilled by a culture of corruption and extortion through the collusion of various union leaders and other stakeholders. On many occasions, this network has been responsible for thwarting much-needed reforms which would have established order and discipline in the sector. Keeping this in mind, any solution needs to be carefully examined and backed by a strong political commitment.
I would like to focus on three specific areas of solutions that can be part of a larger plan for improving road safety. Also, these are aimed at meeting the two SDG targets related to achieving road safety within the shortest possible time and using effective technologies. The three reforms involve: i) speed limit enforcement, incident detection and emergency management system for highways; ii) institutional development of driving instructors, drivers training and testing; and iii) introducing safe, reliable public transportation in cities and sub-urban areas.
On national highways, over-speeding is responsible for 43 percent of accidents as a main cause and its share as a secondary cause is 31 percent (ARI, BUET). Various field studies show that the speed of vehicles, especially buses, often crosses 100 kmph on the highways, irrespective of the straight and curve section situations. This sort of speeding is very common owing to the lack of effective speed limit enforcement measures, often causing dangerous crashes. Also, there is no institutional framework for detecting incidents on the highways and responding to emergency situations. Therefore, a large number of accidents remain unreported and injured victims remain unattended for a long time, thereby increasing the fatality rate. To prevent over-speeding, radar-based speed cameras can be installed at every 1-2 km segment of national highways with a network length of about 4,000 km. The cameras will record over-speeding incidents along with the images of vehicles at all times and under all weather conditions. Through a proper and dedicated communication network, the field recording tools can be connected with a central server, i.e. control room. The control room features should be able to develop management decision aids in the form of identifying speed violation, detecting incidents and flow problems, etc. Such installations have been reported to be able to reduce accidents by up to 50 percent in some developed countries.
Again, there are not enough expert drivers compared to the rapid increase in the number of vehicles. Due to the lack of quality driving schools, instructors with appropriate knowledge of road safety, and necessary equipment and proper course structures, the new drivers adding to the existing driver population are not properly trained. To meet the demand for trained drivers and training of existing drivers, an adequate number of driving schools should be established with appropriate equipment, training simulator, educated instructors, etc. Also, a simulator-based driving competency testing system should be established at every circle office of BRTA to improve the driving licensing procedure, taking our driving licensing standard on a par with the globally accepted standards. The trained drivers will contribute significantly to reducing road crashes.
Besides, a formal bus service and surface rail based commuter train service are automatic choices as the low-cost and effective public transportation in urban and peri-urban areas. Our policymakers have to understand that not just the megacities like Dhaka and Chittagong, there are at least ten other cities with more than half a million residents that need improved public transport services. Just to provide a quick recipe for this problem, I would like to recommend a fleet of about 5,000 city buses to cover the need for improved bus services in the 12 cities and about 40 quality commuter trains with preferably separate dedicated tracks to serve the need for commuter train services. The two public transport improvement options—bringing about 4 crore urbanites under a safe public transport network—may need an investment of about Tk 3,500 crore each. Comparing these to a single Dhaka metro line-6 project, costing about Tk 22,000 crore, should surely be a motivation for the policymakers to prioritise projects yielding low hanging fruits. It is not understandable why a government undertaking over two lakh crores of ADP cannot nationalise an urban bus system for 4 crore urbanites at a cost of about 3,500 crores only. A safer and formal urban public transport will reduce urban crash numbers significantly.
Finally, a safe and efficient transportation system is a prerequisite to the present government's visions of 2030 and 2041. The government should carefully plan the implementation of various transport development projects as part of a holistic national plan, and projects should be prioritised on the basis of their safety, economy, efficiency and environmental footprints in order to meet the sustainable development goals, especially the relevant road safety targets discussed at the beginning.
Dr Moazzem Hossain is a professor at the Department of Civil Engineering, and ex-director, ARI, BUET.