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Why is it so hard to bring discipline to Bangladesh’s roads?

  • Published at 06:36 pm December 27th, 2019
Web_Road-Bus_Dhaka_Rajib
File photo of buses in Dhaka Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

The Road Transport Act 2018 was passed by the cabinet of the previous government on August 6 last year, just days after nationwide protests erupted over two students being killed by a reckless bus driver in Dhaka

Road safety has been a mainstay of the ruling Awami League’s political manifesto in the last two national elections in 2014 and 2018. Yet the government has struggled to bring about discipline in the road transport sector.

The Road Transport Act 2018 was passed by the cabinet of the previous government on August 6 last year, just days after nationwide protests erupted over two students being killed by a reckless bus driver in Dhaka.

It came into effect on November 1 this year, nearly a year after the Awami League returned to power in December 2018. However, measures to implement the law sparked much trouble and public disturbance.

Owners and workers of public transports called strikes, barricaded roads, vandalized and assaulted anyone who did not stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

Road safety experts and activists concur that government agencies were hardly equipped to implement the law despite the protracted rollout. Not only was there a dearth of any government initiatives during this period, but problems also arose over the law prescribing penalties for drivers and passengers alike.

The focus on penalties proved to be very unpopular and led to protests strong enough to make the government reconsider the law.

Vehicle owners and drivers have now secured an extension till June 30, 2020 to register their vehicles and get their licence.

For its part, the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) has been struggling to provide licences due to a shortage of smart licence cards. As of July 2019, there were at least 950,000 vehicles without licensed drivers in Bangladesh.

Bill passed in 2018, law implemented in 2019, revision in 2020?

In the meantime, the pushback from the transport sector has led the government into scrutinizing the protesters’ demands in order to make amendments to the Road Transport Act, suspending its full implementation.

Drivers claimed the law was too favourable to bus owners because there was no punishment for owners who provided unregistered vehicles.

On the other hand, bus owners claimed all complaints and fines were to be addressed by them and not drivers.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal has said the government is looking into the matter and scrutinizing their demands.

Transport workers and owners have demanded that road accident cases must be made bailable and that owners must not be harassed. They also called for a reduction in fines.

According to the new law, driving without a licence or driving an unfit vehicle carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail or a Tk25,000 fine or both.

The maximum punishment for driving unregistered vehicles is six months in prison or Tk50,000 in fine or both. The highest punishment for honking banned horns is three months in jail or Tk10,000 fine or both.

The new law says a driver can be fined up to a maximum of Tk10,000 for violating traffic signals. But the culture of trip-based income and panic in Dhaka’s traffic is hardly expected to deter drivers from their usual rat racing.

Illegal parking also carries high penalties under the new law, with the maximum fine being Tk5,000.

As most major roads and smaller roads have little, if any, parking space in Dhaka, the question sprang universally: if there is no space for legal parking, how can parking be considered illegal?

The Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA) approved 64 on-street parking spots in December after initial attempts to enforce the law.

Even the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) plans to improve parking through mobile apps.

No awareness, no faith in law?

The lack of government initiatives to make the provisions of the law known to the general public has culminated in many people breaking the law without knowing of it.

The BRTA and traffic police alike have said they do not have any plans to create awareness specifically about the law among the populace. The only efforts included putting up banners announcing the new law and observing traffic week, neither of which is currently in operation.

Road transport remains fraught with irregularities not only in Dhaka, but throughout the country.

Pedestrians still appear to prefer jaywalking over using zebra crossings or foot overbridges. The footpaths are by and large occupied by hawkers and small traders, and motorcyclists often use them to skirt around the main road traffic. Buses stop in the middle of the road to pick up or drop off passengers. All of these are problems that have been a persistent reality.

Transportation and safety expert Prof Shamsul Hoque, director of the Accident Research Institute at Buet, said: “The government should comprehensively campaign to explain how the new law will be helpful in reducing accidents and bringing discipline on the roads. Neither drivers nor owners expect accidents.

“The campaign has to explain to them that they ought to be more careful through being aware of the punishments resulting from their mistakes.”

Bangladesh Passengers Welfare Association Secretary Mozammel Haque Chawdhury said: “If we cannot make drivers more conscious about the consequences, they will not have much faith in the rule of law.”

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