Early in the morning on Oct 22, 2018, when I was shaving, the phone rang three times in quick succession. Thinking that there must be some sort of emergency, I was ready for the fourth time. A torrent of anger reached me over the phone. “What sort of a Bangladeshi friend are you?” “You can only go on and on writing about 1971.” “Why don’t you live in the present-2018?” “Don’t you know that today is National Road Safety Day?” “Give us some advice. Write about road safety.”
Having driven landrovers, jeeps, Toyota Sprinters and motorbikes in Bangladesh and India over the last 50 years, I suppose that I should have something to say, although I am certainly not a road safety expert.
The first thing to say is that very few drivers in Bangladesh have been trained by qualified trainers about how to drive and many persons who have full driving licences have actually never taken the driving test. Driving licences can be bought as can the annual fitness tests for vehicles. It is no surprise at all that there are so many accidents. There are thousands of vehicles that are unfit as any or all of their tyres, steering, brakes and lights are defective.
Often, the public are told to cross the roads using the zebra crossings. However, there are no flashing beacons and neither drivers nor pedestrians are aware of the Highway Code rule that says that pedestrians at a zebra crossing have the right of way and that vehicles should stop to allow pedestrians to cross.
In addition, pedestrians seem to have no idea about road safety. Safety on the roads and pavements need to taught from a very young age and adults should set an example. Regularly it can be seen that people are crossing a very busy road when there is an over bridge a few metres away. Quite unbelievable! While many drivers of all kinds of vehicles can be seen driving while talking on mobile phones, pedestrians are equally guilty while crossing roads. Also, where there are pavements for pedestrians to use, motorbike drivers seem to think that they have a right of way on the pavements too!
The amazing demonstration/enforcement of road safety by students at the beginning of August this year appears to have had little lasting effect except that a lot of pillion passengers are now wearing crash helmets. However, sometimes commonsense seems to be absent. When I took a Pathao motorbike ride a few nights ago, the driver was not wearing a helmet and I asked why. “Oh, it is after 10pm, so the police will not stop us.”
It is also horrifying to learn through the media that Pathao are registering motorbike drivers who only have a learners licence. That sort of disregard for commonsense is unbelievable. At traffic lights (regularly seen at Gulshan-2 traffic lights) motorbike drivers drive through red lights whenever they so like. Why do the police allow the motorbike drivers to get away with such dangerous driving?
When I talk to Bangladeshi friends about the lack of discipline and commonsense of drivers and pedestrians alike, they tell me, “Julian Bhai, this is Bangladesh. It cannot change.” I reject this and point out, “Go into the Cantonment area and you will see that discipline and commonsense are everywhere. Even rickshaws have lights at night.” I remember that many years ago a member of the armed forces was killed as a result of dangerous driving in Kemal Attaturk Road in Banani. For a few days after that, in some sort of reaction, the Military Police controlled the traffic in Kemal Attaturk Road. The transformation was amazing.