Syed Zain Al-Mahmood
On the night of November 27, the motor launch MV Coco, carrying Eid holidaymakers, went down in the Tetulia river, killing 87 people. There was a national outcry amid calls for an overhaul of inland water transportation. The government sued the owners and announced compensation for the victims. But meanwhile, away from the media spotlight, another tragedy was being played out. More than a hundred people died in road crashes across the country during the Eid holidays. At least ten times as many were injured. But hardly anyone seemed to notice.
Bangladesh has one of the most dangerous roads with 100 deaths per 10000 registered vehicles.
For Jahanara Hossain of Golapbagh, the nightmare started two days after Eid. At 10.30 in the morning she received the phone call that every parent dreads. “Bhabi,” yelled her next door neighbour on the phone, “Come quickly! Sumi…!”
Jahanara's mind went blank. Her 6-year-old daughter Sumi had been playing outside, in front of the restaurant owned by the Hossain family. Jahanara rushed out into the street, and saw Sumi lying in a pool of blood. She had been struck down by a speeding bus.
The grisly drama of death and destruction is enacted on Bangladesh's roads with depressing regularity. Bangladesh loses about ten thousand lives to road crashes annually -- the equivalent of two MV Cocos every week. Almost unnoticed, road traffic injury is becoming the leading killer of young people less than 24 years of age, outranking infectious diseases and malnutrition. Child pedestrians are the main victims of road traffic injuries throughout the developing world.
According to World Health Organisation projections, road traffic injuries will be the third highest threat to public health by 2020, beating out diseases such as tuberculosis, diarrhoeal diseases and HIV/AIDS. In South Asia alone, road deaths are expected to increase from 135,000 in 2000 to 330,000 in 2020 (World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, WHO, 2004). That is an alarming 144 percent increase in fatalities.
Don't call them accidents, urged road safety experts at the recently concluded Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety in Moscow. When poorly constructed roads, varied traffic, unskilled drivers, and unsafe vehicles and thrown together in an explosive mixture something is bound to go wrong. Our roads are death traps, and often innocent bystanders like Sumi Hossain are the victims.
Communications minister Syed Abul Hossain called for a holistic solution to the road crash epidemic.
“We ignore this epidemic at our peril,” warned Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in his foreword to a report by the Commission for Global Road Safety ahead of the Ministerial Conference.
Road accidents kill and injure people who are young and productive, and can mean a one-way ticket to poverty for many families. Apart from the loss of productivity, in some countries road victims take up more than half of the surgical and trauma beds in hospitals. In developing countries like Bangladesh, the economic loss is equal to two percent of GDP roughly equal to the total foreign aid received in a given fiscal year.
Although statistics spell out the length and breadth of the problem, they do not adequately reflect the human trauma that results from road traffic injuries. It is a particularly violent way to go, and family and friends have to struggle with shock, disbelief, anguish and even anger.
“She was my whole life,” laments Sumi's mother Jahanara Hossain. “Why did she have to go like this?”
Jahanara could have taken some measure of solace from the experiences of Casey Marenge and Diza Gonzaga. Road crashes impacted their lives in the most brutal way imaginable, yet they found the courage to turn their grief into strength. Casey became paralysed and confined to a wheelchair after a road crash six years ago at the age of 20. She went on to form Chariots of Destiny -- a road safety NGO based in Nairobi, Kenya. Casey's appearance on stage at the Moscow Ministerial transformed the conference. Her heartfelt yet somber style contrasted with the dry statistics presented by the previous speakers. “I represent victims of Road crashes, their families and the voices of those we have lost on our roads,” she declared. “One person cannot do everything but everyone can do something. Road crashes are destroying lives. Let us save lives!”
Although Diza Gonzaga did not speak at the meeting, her presence in Moscow was no less inspiring. The day before the meeting started, Diza Gonzaga won the Prince Michael International Award for her road safety movement Vida Urgente (Life is Precious). Diza set up Vida Urgente in Brazil after her son, Thiago, lost his life in a late night crash. “In most countries, there is this macho culture among young people that they must drive fast,” Diza told the Star Magazine. “We are trying to raise awareness that speed kills, driving under the influence kills. No matter how good a driver you are!”
Time for Action was the theme of the Moscow summit, and the gathering of Ministers of health, transport, education, foreign affairs and others; UN agency representatives; nongovernmental and business leaders; and road safety experts from more than 147 countries rose to the occasion. The conference moved beyond mere advocacy and stressed specific practical measures that will save lives.
Important commitments were made that could signal a turning a point for global road safety. The World Bank and the six leading Multilateral Development Banks issued a pledge to make road safety a priority in the banks' operations through a “Shared Approach to Managing Road Safety.” Bloomberg Philanthropies made a pledge of a US $125 million investment in road safety. This was followed up with a 10 million Euro commitment by the FIA Foundation and a £1.5 million grant from the UK Department for International Development to the World Bank Global Road Safety Facility. On the final day the ministers adopted a call for 2011-2020 to be declared the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety.
One factor repeatedly mentioned in Moscow as a key ingredient of any road safety effort is “political will”. All the awareness in the world will not save lives if it is not backed up by thoughtful policies and tenacious enforcement, the conference was told.
The ministers gathered in Moscow were urged to move beyond rhetoric and employ tried and tested methods that will help curb the scourge of road death. “We have the tools, the knowledge, and with determined political leadership we can collectively prevent five million deaths, and fifty million serious injuries, between now and 2020,” said Lord Robertson, former British defense minister and now the Chairman of the Commission for Global Road Safety.
Clearly inspired, Bangladesh's Communications Minister Syed Abul Hossain said he would make road safety a priority during his tenure. “We must go for a holistic solution to this problem,” he told the Star Magazine. “My priority is to build dividers on all major highways so that opposing traffic can be separated. Frontal collisions are a major problem in our country. We will upgrade the Dhaka-Chittagong highway which has the largest volume of traffic to a 4-lane highway. That will improve safety greatly.”
The good news is that road crashes are predictable and therefore preventable. Road safety experts have over the past two decades adopted a systems approach to road traffic injury prevention. This comprehensive approach takes into account the interaction of three factors -- human, vehicle and environment during three phases of a crash event: pre-crash, crash and post-crash. Implementation of the “safe systems” model has brought significant reduction in levels of traffic-related death and injury in many countries, including some developing ones. Admittedly, it takes time to attain those levels of road safety. But research has shown that public education backed by tough enforcement can achieve good results relatively cheaply and quickly.
There are plenty of success stories. Countries like Viet Nam have cut road deaths through the simple expedient of enforcing crash helmet laws. In Malaysia, Costa Rica and South Africa, pilot projects undertaken by the International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP) have shown how thousands of lives can be saved through simple design changes. In Uganda, a programme on enhanced traffic enforcement cut road deaths by 17 percent.
“Simple measures like the wearing of helmets for motorcycle and bicycle riders have a dramatic impact on road casualty figures,” said Greig Craft, President of AIP Foundation that spearheads the award-winning “Helmet Vaccine Initiative” in Vietnam. “We have had great success in Vietnam through awareness building, and the design of helmets that are attractive and innovative. This success can be replicated and shared with other developing countries in Asia.”
The emphasis on a more scientific approach is embodied by the International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP). Working with governments and local agencies, iRAP targets high-risk roads and proposes affordable changes, delivering significant reductions in deaths and serious injuries. In a country like Bangladesh where crash data is notoriously difficult to come by, an assessment programme is desperately needed.
“We are very pleased to be planning a pilot project in Bangladesh,” John Dawson, chairman of iRAP told the Star in an exclusive interview. “We are speaking to the government and other stakeholders at present.”
Through its "Vaccines for Roads" programme the iRAP methodology delivers a 'Star rating' system showing the safety of roads for car occupants, motorcyclists, bicylists and pedestrians. The programme also recommends cost-effective, network-wide countermeasures for consideration by local stakeholders and funding bodies.
'Vaccines for Roads' expects high investment returns -- for each pilot country the estimated benefit to cost ratio of the recommended programme is greater than 10. In Malaysia for example an investment of US $180m is expected to deliver US $3bn in benefits and prevent over 30,000 deaths and serious injuries over 20 years.
Prof Md Shamsul Hoque, Director of the Accident Research Institute of Buet believes that Bangladesh faces some unique challenges in order to make its roads safe. “There is basically no enforcement in Bangladesh to speak of. There are simple and inexpensive things that could save many lives and make our roads safer. But they are not being done due to lack of political will.”
In the days following Sumi's tragic death, Jahanara Hossain has not come to terms with the loss of her daughter. “I keep waiting for her to come through the door, her face lit up by a mischievous smile,” she says.
Little Sumi will never return home. But the policies and “vaccines” advocated in Moscow, if implemented, could mean that 5 million families will be spared the anguish of losing a loved one over the next ten years. Five million people will have evaded the clutches of the road crash epidemic, and arrived home alive.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009