National Safe Road Day: Pedestrian deaths higher on Dhaka roads
Dhaka is currently the most dangerous city in the country for pedestrians, with one-fourth of the annual road accident-related fatalities occurring among pedestrians. Over the past three years, both the number of accidents and deaths in Dhaka have seen a significant and alarming increase, with pedestrians being the primary victims.
Dhaka's road infrastructure is already insufficient to meet the growing demands. The availability of walkways or footpaths falls far short of what is needed. The total length of roads in Dhaka North and South City is just a little over 2,000 kilometres, whereas there are only about 600 km of footpaths. Furthermore, many of the existing sidewalks are unusable.
Experts specialising in road safety have pointed out that Dhaka's roads are far from being pedestrian-friendly. Many of the footpaths have also been illegally encroached upon, compelling pedestrians to walk on the main road. Additionally, a lack of awareness among pedestrians is another contributing factor to the problem. Furthermore, the absence of a modern signaling system on the roads forces pedestrians to take risks when crossing intersections, resulting in a high rate of pedestrian fatalities in traffic accidents in Dhaka.
Frequent incidents of people being hit by buses and other vehicles while crossing the road are unfortunately common in Dhaka city. One such tragic incident occurred on 24 November, 2021, when Naeem Hasan, a student at Notre Dame College, lost his life after being hit by a garbage truck from the Dhaka South City Corporation while crossing the road in Gulistan.
His father, Shah Alam, expressed his concern to Prothom Alo over the phone, emphasising the widespread disregard for traffic rules visible on the streets. He also lamented the apparent lack of government action, calling for, at the very least, the government to ensure strict adherence to road rules and regulations.
According to the Road Safety Foundation, an organisation dedicated to improving road safety, 183 people lost their lives in accidents in Dhaka city during the nine-month period from January to September of this year. The highest number of fatalities, 29 in total, occurred in July. Over the past three years, 26 per cent of the individuals killed in road accidents were pedestrians. Dhaka stands out with the highest number of pedestrian fatalities in comparison to other cities in the country.
Experts working in the field of road safety contend that traffic in Dhaka is primarily managed manually by the traffic police, while pedestrians often navigate through the gaps between vehicles. They argue that by implementing pedestrian-friendly modern crossings, people could safely cross the roads on their own.
In this context, Professor Hadiuzzaman, the former director of the Accident Research Institute at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), conveyed to Prothom Alo that pedestrians are prioritised in modern, smart cities. However, Dhaka lacks pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, making pedestrians particularly vulnerable in this city. He emphasised the importance of implementing a traffic signal system for pedestrian crossings.
In response to this issue, 'National Safe Road Day' is commemorated nationwide on 22 October. Since 2017, the day has aimed to raise awareness about road safety through various events. This year's theme for the day is 'Let us follow the law on the road and build a smart Bangladesh.'
Experts specialising in road safety stress that merely discussing the law without implementing intelligent traffic management will not lead to significant changes. The traffic management in the capital is entirely manual, making the concept of 'smart' in the theme incongruent with the current situation.
Risks for pedestrians
Experts from BUET's Accident Research Institute have identified several specific reasons for the high number of pedestrian deaths on Dhaka's roads. Firstly, vehicles often get stuck in traffic for extended periods at key road junctions, leading to a competition to proceed once the traffic signal turns green. With no separate signal system for pedestrian crossings, many individuals attempt to cross the road during this time, increasing the risk of accidents.
Secondly, pedestrians standing on the road can become victims of accidents during the competition between two buses to pick up passengers. Thirdly, due to the poor condition of footpaths, many pedestrians are compelled to walk on the road, resulting in accidents as well. Fourthly, heavy goods vehicles in Dhaka often travel at reckless speeds during the night, posing an additional risk of pedestrian fatalities.
Automatic signal systems have not been introduced in Dhaka, not only at pedestrian crossings but city-wide. The entire city's traffic is currently being manually controlled by the hand signals of the police. Over the past two decades, several projects aimed at implementing modern traffic signals in Dhaka have been executed, with approximately Tk 1.9 billion invested in these initiatives. Unfortunately, most of the signal lamps have become non-functional due to a lack of maintenance and usage.
In the last fiscal year of 2010-11, with financing from the World Bank, solar panels, timer countdowns, controllers, and cables were installed at 92 intersections under Dhaka's two city corporations. Regrettably, this automatic signal system is now also in disrepair.
A Prothom Alo correspondent, along with two photographers, conducted a four-day investigation into traffic management in various areas of Dhaka city, including Paltan, Shahbagh, Karwan Bazar, Farmgate, Asadgate, and Banani, from Wednesday to Saturday. It was seen that the signal lamps were not functioning at all. In some locations, the signal lights were broken and abandoned, with neither the traffic police nor the drivers paying any attention to these lights. Vehicles were relying on hand signals provided by traffic police for guidance on when to move or stop.
Munibur Rahman, the Additional Commissioner of Traffic for Dhaka Metropolitan Police, informed Prothom Alo that several coordination meetings have taken place in recent months involving the two city corporations of Dhaka, BRTA, and the Ministry of Home Affairs regarding traffic management. A decision will be made in the coming months concerning the implementation of a modern traffic signal system.
Doubts over implementing the law
In many road accident cases, the vehicles involved often lack a route permit or fitness certificate, and frequently, the drivers do not possess a valid driving license. However, in the election manifesto announced by the Awami League prior to the 2018 parliamentary elections, there was a commitment to take comprehensive measures to minimise road accidents and modernize the traffic system.
The reality, however, differs from these promises. Five years ago, in response to the student movement advocating for safer roads, the government swiftly enacted the Road Transport Act. Regrettably, this law has yet to be fully enforced.
At that time, Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader delegated the task of reviewing the road law to the Home Minister, Law Minister, and Railway Minister in the face of strikes and pressure from transport owners and workers' organisations. The proposal for amending the law was submitted to the Ministry of Road Transport last year, initiated by the three ministers. Yet, even after this submission, the matter remains unresolved.
Saidur Rahman, the executive director of the Road Safety Foundation, conveyed to Prothom Alo that the government has failed to take the necessary steps to ensure road safety as it had promised. He highlighted that the government's inaction is influenced by individual and group interests, which hinder proactive efforts to fulfill their commitments. He emphasized the critical role of political will from the government in the effective implementation of the Road Transport Act.
Deaths on roads not coming down
Despite being recognised as the slowest city in the world, Dhaka still experiences a high rate of road accidents, as noted by experts in the road sector. According to a research report published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, Dhaka ranks as the slowest city among more than 1,200 cities in 152 countries. This ranking is based on an analysis of traffic speed. On 28 September, Time, a US-based magazine, published a report based on this study.
Data from the Road Safety Foundation reveals that road accidents in Dhaka increased by nearly 98 per cent last year compared to 2021. Additionally, accidents have seen an increase nationwide.
In 2022, accidents throughout the country rose by 27 per cent in comparison to the previous year. In 2021, there were 6,284 accident-related fatalities, which increased to 7,713 in the subsequent year. During the first nine months of this year, the country recorded 4,296 accidents and 4,362 fatalities during the same period.
On 1 September, Fabiha Afifa, a second-year graduate student in the Department of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, was injured in a truck accident while crossing the road in the 300 feet area of Purbachal, Dhaka. Unfortunately, she succumbed to her injuries and passed away in the hospital two days after the accident.
Her mother, Dilshad Afroz, shared with Prothom Alo that the extent of her daughter's injuries was so severe that her skull had to be kept apart. She appealed to the government to take necessary measures to prevent road accidents, hoping that no other mother would have to endure such a harrowing experience.
Following the nationwide student movement in August 2018, which called for safer roads, a committee was established under the Prime Minister's Office to enhance Dhaka's traffic system and restore order on the roads.
After several meetings, the committee issued a total of 17 directives. Most of these instructions pertain to routine activities related to road discipline, including the implementation of a modern signaling system. However, even after five years, the majority of these guidelines remain unimplemented.
One of the directives issued by the Prime Minister's office stipulated that the name, license number, mobile number of the driver, and a photo of the driver and their assistant should be prominently displayed in two visible locations inside public transport vehicles.
Over the past four days, this correspondent boarded 12 buses serving different routes in Dhaka. However, none of these buses displayed the required information, including the driver's photo, mobile number, and license, in visible locations.
Professor Md. Hadiuzzaman, the former director of BUET's Accident Research Institute, told Prothom Alo, "Dhaka's traffic management tools, such as inefficient drivers, unfit vehicles, and ineffective signaling systems, are not smart. Simply talking about the law without making these tools smarter will not yield results. If we focus on the law from the outset but neglect the chaos and problems, the situation will not change."
*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat