|Volume 5 Issue 09| September 2011|
Combating Highway Terrorism
The battle for road safety will require a multi-pronged approach, posits DEVASISH ROY WANGZA.
The trauma of traffic “accidents”
A tribute to Tareque and Munier
Socio-moral responsibilities: Direct civic action by road-users
Only a miniscule percentage of the vehicles that ply on our roads carry a sole driver. The overwhelming majority of vehicles carry several passengers, whether it is a bus, scooter (“CNG”), van, microbus, SUV or even motorbike. Even trucks carry passengers beside the driver or up on the deck or 'carrier'. In most cases, the passengers condone the drivers' recklessness. In some cases, they themselves directly prod the driver to speed. In others, they indirectly encourage, or passively accept, the driver's rash 'overtaking'. In yet others, passengers are secretly pleased when their driver has 'jumped' the queue in a jam. Unfortunately, few demonstrate the moral courage necessary to take an ethical stand and confront the driver of their vehicle, or other drivers flouting traffic laws and rules. I am sure that many of us have seen countless wealthy and university-educated Sahebs and Begums, comfortably ensconced in the rear seats of their vehicles, while their chauffeur broke the law, nonchalantly, and with not a murmur from his bosses. And, what are the solutions?
One such way is to mount a campaign to raise awareness among road passengers to assert themselves (even as 'backseat drivers') and prevent drivers from driving recklessly. School, college and university students could hand out leaflets and flyers and stop truant vehicles on the road, when they slow down at a jam or at the red light and politely but firmly admonish the drivers, and/or the passengers and shame them. Non-governmental organisations, including hopefully-to-be-created road safety citizens' groups can do likewise. The concerned government agencies and local government bodies could lead, or join in.
Examples of civic action by citizens
First, on speeding. Some relatives of mine used to frequently take night buses to transport their children to and from faraway schools before and after vacations. They used to ensure that they got seats in the front of the bus, stayed up all night and periodically pleaded with, screamed at, or otherwise threatened, the driver (but not with physical violence), whenever he (it's seldom a she) drove recklessly. Sure, they were exhausted the following day. But they and their children lived to tell the tale.
Another occasion involves myself. I was in a CNG-autorickshaw on VIP Road in Dhaka and found that the driver would not stop driving dangerously fast even after repeated entreaties. I then instructed the driver to let me off immediately and threatened him that I would not pay him a single paisa if he did not stop right then. He slowed down! I reached my destination safely and paid him the full fare.
On several other occasions, particularly before Eid, I have come across highway jams that were exacerbated by vehicles breaking the queue and creating new traffic lanes at will (real paint-marked highway lanes to them are mere aesthetic embellishments caused by artistic members of the R&H Department!). In some cases I got out, spoke to other passengers, urged them to socially confront these truant vehicles and threaten them with reporting the matter to the police and/or shame them (if they are “shame-able”, of course). In most cases it worked. The success rate mattered on our numbers and the presence of younger proactive citizens. In one or two cases, I saw organised students' groups force queue-breaking vehicles' drivers reverse back to a position in the jam, way before the position that they had started from. Just desserts!
Direct civic action II
Many of the aforesaid measures may not apply, or apply in the same measure, in the case of trucks (lorries), since most trucks have few or no passengers. In such cases, the deterrent measure might have to focus on fines and seizure or detention of the vehicle. The owners of the transported goods would in most cases not be happy in the case of delay of their goods.
Penal sanctions: Incarceration and hefty fines
Of course, we will have to deal with the other menace of corruption by law-enforcers. If the penalty has a strong enough sting to it, including a hefty monetary fine, the potentially guilty drivers will not be let off the hook so easily. If our law-enforcement personnel act honestly and efficiently, they will prosecute the offending drivers. If they are less-than-honest, they will most likely help themselves with some form of a monetary 'gratification'. And if the fine is high enough, the gratification level will also be correspondingly high, and hurt the driver's pocket, and in certain contexts, the owner of the vehicle as well. I don't wish to encourage such acts of corruption, but such a development is likely, if not inevitable, and we have to account for it.
Mobile courts and patrolling
Identity of vehicles and drivers
Although it is primarily the responsibility of the government to construct and maintain roads, some of the maintenance and repair work can be outsourced to private companies for different sections of the highways. This can be financed from the government's treasury through indirect taxes. Alternatively, different sections of the highways' repair and maintenance can be funded by a direct tax, levied through toll stations from actual road-users of that particular stretch of highway.
I believe that such a practice exists in France and in several other countries of Western Europe.
Traffic in Dhaka and other cities and towns
Morality, ethics and responsibility revisited
Have you noticed how city drivers honk when caught in a jam, as if the vehicle in front was intentionally sitting idle, whilst clearly seeing that the supposed idler vehicle was neither a helicopter nor a hovercraft? Have you also seen drivers at a traffic stop that take their cars so far front, and on to the zebra crossing, that they can't see the lights when they turn green, and move only when the car in the rear starts honking furiously? I used to have great fun, stopping my car behind such vehicles, but with enough distance to enable me to drive away at the green light, leaving the in-a-hurry but traffic-light-blind driver behind me!
I could go on. Let me come to the question of social class, gender and morality. Just compare the times you have been cheated by a rickshaw-puller with the times you have been cheated by an auto-rickshaw driver or yellow cab driver (in the metropolises). The bigger the vehicle, the higher the level of moral degradation of the person in charge! And although in several contexts women tend to be more honest than men, this doesn't hold true always. The queue-jumper at the school I mentioned was a woman. However, despite the sexist stories of “women drivers” (meaning “bad” drivers), I actually think that on average, women drive more safely than men, and hence, are better drivers.
All is not lost. Our present Education Minister provides a good example by queuing up in the Bangladesh Secretariat before the lifts, thereby preventing his overzealous bodyguards from manhandling other lift-users. I think that instances of flouting of social rules in some contexts at least, are gradually getting fewer. Queues at bus stops are more regulated than they were a decade ago. As a law student in England in the1980s, I was once acutely embarrassed to read a newspaper article with the headline “Bangladeshi students demonstrate for the right to cheat”. We've come a long way from that. Nowadays, more and more people protest against anti-social behaviour, whether it concerns queue-breaking, or discrimination based on gender and class, and to a lesser extent, where it concerns ethnic or religious affiliation. We can and must do the same in the case of violation of traffic laws. As I said earlier, ultimately, we must own up to our responsibilities as citizens and promote social mores that respect the rights of others not to be cheated or otherwise deprived of their rights.
© thedailystar.net, 2011. All Rights Reserved