In the past week, it seems as though all of Bangladesh has come alive to take part in protests following the death of two students hit by a speeding bus in the capital city of Dhaka. Enraged students have effectively brought the city to a standstill, blocking the streets, torching buses, and even attacking the car of the US Ambassador in their efforts to raise awareness of traffic deaths in Bangladesh. They accuse the Bangladeshi government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, of ignoring the massive problem that is reckless driving in Bangladesh.
Road accidents, which WHO estimates to be responsible for more than 20,000 fatalities each year, are one of the leading causes of death in Bangladesh. Each day some 64 people die in traffic related incidents, the vast majority of them pedestrians. Poorly maintained roads, underpaid bus drivers racing to compete for passengers, and general traffic congestion make commuting in Bangladesh difficult—and potentially perilous. This problem has enormous costs associated with it, both economic and social. Some estimate that US$ 1.7 billion is lost each year due to traffic deaths, and the personal cost of losing a loved one to a reckless driver is immeasurably higher.
Dhaka’s students, angered by the lack of government response to what has now become the reality of life in Bangladesh, are pushing for major traffic reform. Though the government has been quick to criticize the unrest, with reports of police brutality towards protesting students and several arrests, as of Sunday some positive change has developed: the government approved legislation increasing the sentence for road fatalities from three to five years in prison. Seems as though the students got what they wanted—right? Not quite. While the change in the law did represent a minor victory in that it means the government is acknowledging the reckless driving problem (or at least the protests related to it), due to lack of enforcement of the current law, there remains an incentive to drive recklessly without fear of being caught.
Before addressing real solutions to this problem, however, one must first understand the factors influencing reckless driving in Bangladesh. As compared to the 3.4 million registered vehicles in Bangladesh, there are only 1.7 million licensed drivers. This means that there are some 1.7 million vehicles being driven by unlicensed, and thus, potentially dangerous operators. Such drivers are more likely to speed or unknowingly disregard traffic rules that could help lead to safer roads. 43% of traffic accidents occur on account of a speeding driver. If there was a sufficient number of police to catch speeding drivers or conduct routine traffic stops to check vehicle licensing, a decrease in the number of traffic deaths would be expected to follow. And yet, the highway police face significant shortages in staffing. Furthermore, even if the violators were to be caught, there is no specialized agency within the police force tasked with the processing of traffic crimes. Instead, general police officers rotate through traffic management roles and there is a separation between enforcement and management, making the investigation process inefficient and unnecessarily arduous.
In order to reduce the occurrence of unsafe driving practices in Bangladesh, there are several solutions, two of which I will focus on: the first is to implement and promote awareness of inexpensive, government-run driving schools to incentivize drivers to become licensed, and the second is to clearly outline and enforce speed limits on all roads. If driving schools were widely available and inexpensive, with students’ tuition only so much as to cover the bare minimum of operating the schools, more Bangladeshis could be convinced to undergo training that would emphasize the skills necessary for safe driving. Furthermore, if traffic laws were actually enforced, drivers would recognize the utility of getting a license, as the alternative of a traffic ticket or even a prison term would be more costly to them. This then necessitates the stringent monitoring of roads by the highway police. As the current impediment to this solution is one of insufficient manpower, technology such as traffic cameras can be used as an alternative to physical police presence on the roads. Analysts with the Police Research Group in the U.K. have assessed the cost of traffic cameras compared to physical officers in policing traffic and have determined the technology to be not only more efficient in processing traffic violations but also more cost effective. Bangladesh has already begun installing such technology along some of its roads and highways, but with the complete implementation and maintenance of traffic cameras in all areas, traffic violators will be caught more often and their cases processed with more efficiency.
It is in the interest of every Bangladeshi, driver or pedestrian, that a viable solution is undertaken to reduce the daily threat posed by reckless driving. While the protesting students have been successful in grabbing the attention of their government—and the world—there is still more work to be done before Bangladeshis can feel safe in their own streets.