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Drive to Death.

Byline: Mahrukh Farooq

In Dhaka - the world's densest and fastest-growing city - according to a study on urban planning by Demographia, scenes of total gridlock on some of its major arteries are the norm. On a regular basis, the citizens of Dhaka are treated to a cacophony of beeps and honks, not to mention, the occasional verbal onslaught brought upon by old-fashioned road rage. All this, combined with the collective fumes coming from the exhausts of surrounding vehicles makes for a nerve-wracking, albeit unique, experience.

Considering Bangladesh is still a developing country, it only makes sense for people residing in the capital and other areas to encounter such challenges on the roads. In a report published in 2010 by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the entire road network in Dhaka comprises just a fraction of the city's infrastructure; barely seven percent. Indeed a byproduct of ineffective and careless planning, Dhaka has fewer arteries or connecting roads that could help divert traffic and lead cars to highways. In addition, the city has a total of only 60 traffic lights (many of which do not work) for up to 650 major intersections. Its footpaths comprise over 400 km, out of which nearly 40% are occupied by street vendors, garbage bins or construction materials.

To add to such deplorable conditions is the complete lack or absence of a framework by which proper laws related to traffic and vehicles can be implemented. This, combined with an inadequate number of police officers required to enforce driving and parking rules, has contributed to a number of public transport vehicles to be manned and driven by individuals who are barely out of their teens and who, hence, do not possess the required training and foresight needed to drive on the road. The results are catastrophic road accidents leading to numerous deaths of innocent people. According to a report released by the Bangladesh Passengers' Welfare Association, the total number of people killed in road accidents in 2015 numbered to a staggering 8,642. Of that number, 60% were pedestrians.

In a statement given to the press in March the General Secretary of the Dhaka Metropolitan Leguna Taxicab and Human Hauler Road Transport Workers' Union, Nurunnabi, shed some light on the ways in which teenagers were inducted. He said that a great number of underage drivers for 14-seater utility vehicles such as trucks and public buses are first recruited as drivers' assistants or conductors, before they are allowed to sit in the driving seat. Since many of them are below the age of 20, which is the age eligibility for drivers in Bangladesh for application of professional driving licences, according to the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, they lack the training and knowledge of driving and traffic laws. The outcome is fatalities and injuries from accidents caused by either the driver's or the conductor's inability to navigate through the stream of constant traffic.

It doesn't take an expert to conclude that a teenager behind the wheel of a heavy vehicle spells danger. In fact, Carmudi, a popular automobile website designed to facilitate the buying and selling of cars online, went to the extent of gathering relevant data related to accidents that have occurred along with the neuroscience behind teen brain development in order to determine whether teens should in fact be allowed to drive in a place like Dhaka.

According to the study, teenage drivers are often involved in fatal crashes, with the rate of such crashes caused by 16-year-olds doubling as compared to those caused by 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds and three times higher than the rate of fatal crashes caused by 20-year olds. While quoting the National Institute of Health (NIH), Carmudi said, "The part of the human brain that weighs risks and controls impulsive behaviour isn't fully developed until about age 25. The nucleus accumbens, which registers pleasure, grows from childhood, reaching the maximum extent in the teenage brain, and then begins to shrink. This, combined with a surge of dopamine receptors, which are responsible for signalling enjoyment, makes teenagers rewards seem much greater. To the teenage brain, the reward is greater than the risk."

The inability to effectively calculate risk notwithstanding, many underage drivers enter the field simply due to "immense poverty and zero access to adequate opportunities," as stated by Nurunnabi. "Many of these boys should be in school, yet they are forced to undertake such responsibilities in order to provide for their families," added the General Secretary.

This statement, invariably, points the finger at the education ministry for not creating a system in which such boys could hope to receive quality education. Yet, it also casts a shadow of doubt on the duties being performed by the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority and the Dhaka Metropolitan Police; this, in fact, indicates their failure to strictly enforce rules for driving, especially when it comes to underage drivers, most escape prosecution by paying police officers a certain sum of money.

Still, many experts are quick to point out that while underage drivers should be trained, if not completely dissuaded from driving altogether, a lot of the accidents that take place on the road are not entirely their doing. Jaywalking, poor infrastructure and an absence of safety features on vehicles also contribute towards the number of deaths caused by road accidents.

Whatever the case may be, the situation has become dire enough for members of the federal government to sit up and pay attention. In a move that is expected to somewhat facilitate the campaign against traffic accidents caused by drivers who not only lack training but who do not even possess a license, the Bangladesh government has included a provision in the Bangladesh Road Transport Act 2016 that would aim to provide proper licences to bus conductors and drivers.

The act has already attracted a lot of opposition and criticism, mainly from members of the public transport community, as it indicates that many bus conductors, who are in their mid-teens, would automatically become ineligible for such licences. The draft for the bill also states that anyone found working in public transport without a legal conductor's licence will be jailed for a maximum term of one month or fined a maximum amount of TK5, 000 or both. The draft also stipulates that any individual or organisation found appointing anyone as conductor without a legal licence will be jailed for a maximum of three months or fined for a maximum amount of TK3, 000 or both.

In a statement to the press, Ilias Kanchan, Chairman Nirapad Sarak Chai (We demand Safe Roads), said, "The provision was in the act earlier but was not implemented. But this provision should be implemented properly as in Bangladesh helpers and conductors play a vital role in public transport though it is rarely seen around the world."

Though controversial, this can be viewed as one step in the right direction as it aims to set a safety and security precedent for those looking to enter the public transport industry. At the same time, however, it would bode well for members of the general public if the government took the initiative to improve infrastructure that would facilitate the flow of traffic, causing less accidents and overall less convenience to the citizens.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9BANG
Date:May 31, 2016
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