In a cruel twist of fate, on the same day the country observed the four year anniversary of the beginning of the student protests over road safety, following the death of two students, we were greeted with news of the death of 11 young men (and seven injured), in Mirsarai of Chattogram, when a train ran over their microbus at a level crossing.
It is almost futile to reiterate the major causes of road accidents in this country - unskilled and overworked drivers, unfit vehicles, absence of stringent laws and lack of enforcement of existing laws, and at a more specific level - three-wheelers on highways, illegal and unmanned rail crossings, black spots on highways, absence of bus stands, racing, and the list goes on.
These have been written about a thousand times over the last two decades; victims, families and activists have shed their blood, sweat and tears; and the government has formed hundreds of committees. And yet, we lost 6,284 lives just last year.
In 2018, students brought almost the entire country to a halt for nearly two weeks, demanding safer roads and stricter traffic laws. And yet, four years later, as the country adds new bridges and expressways to its communication network, the number of lives in danger of being lost, increases manifold.
For example, as the country celebrates the opening of Padma Bridge, the number of accidents on the Dhaka-Mawa Expressway, judging simply from anecdotal evidence, has clearly increased. The irony is, expressways are considered one of the safest forms of highway in the world.
Deadly rush to cross the Padma Bridge
On 10 July, three people were killed in a road accident in the Rajendrapur area on Dhaka-Mawa Expressway when a truck collided with three mini trucks carrying cattle. On 22 July, the deputy commissioner of Gopalganj Shahida Sultan's vehicle was hit from behind by a bus on the expressway at Sreenagar area in Munshiganj. On 26 July, 20 people were injured as a bus overturned near North thana of Padma Bridge at Mawa point in Munshiganj.
Such accidents have become a regular occurrence on the Dhaka-Mawa part of the Bangabandhu Expressway after the Padma Bridge opened last month. The highway police admitted that the number of accidents has risen to a great extent.
"Accidents are also happening because of the competition who will go ahead of whom," said DM Zahirul Islam, Sub-Inspector of Sasara Highway Police Station in Munghiganj.
But transport experts believe that what is happening on the expressway in Bangladesh is not normal. BUET Professor Shamsul Hoque said that the chance of accidents on an expressway is very low around the world.
"The highway police are totally inactive. These accidents indicate that we are not ready for high speeds and those who are supposed to regulate the operating condition are negligent," said Professor Hoque.
One of the primary reasons behind accidents is because people are driving at high speeds for the thrill, but it is the responsibility of the police to control it.
"The police are saying that the increasing number of vehicles is responsible for the increasing number of road accidents on the expressway. This is completely wrong," he added. "The number of vehicles will increase on the expressway with time and will drive at high speeds. The police will have to look out for people creating problems."
These accidents are not happening because of geometry or engineering. They are happening because of either unfit vehicles or the lack of operational enforcement.
The drivers will have to bear in mind that with more speed, the risk of accidents increases. For this reason, commuters need to be cautious while driving on the expressway.
If someone needs to go backwards, they are required to make a turn. However, the expressway does not have that many openings for u-turns which results in many drivers driving on the wrong side of the road.
"This is happening very often, and I have seen some of these accidents," said Professor Hoque.
Accidents also happen when a vehicle is standing still on the expressway. Drivers have a mindset that every vehicle is moving. It is illegal to stop a vehicle on the expressway unless it is out of order.
"Because everyone is moving at high speeds, drivers don't always realise that there is a vehicle standing still on the highway," he explained.
Sometimes the reason for an accident is the result of a group attitude, meaning a group of vehicles plying the expressway in competition with one another. Bus drivers show group attitudes where they compete with one another for more passengers.
The scourge of illegal rail gates
Friday's tragic train-microbus crash, which left 11 dead and seven injured, was the latest addition to a long list of accidents caused by rail crossings.
Accidents can happen at any time and anywhere. However, these accidents are largely related to management issues.
"A majority of level crossings in Bangladesh have no gateman. This is because many of these roads were built illegally without informing the railway authorities. The risk of accidents in these areas are very high," said Professor Hadiuzzaman, Director of the Accident Research Institute (ARI) of BUET. "As far as we know, the gatekeeper was not at his post on Friday. This is not the first time this has happened."
Similar accidents have also occurred where there was no gateman, they were either asleep or absent. Experts have long been providing suggestions for these problems.
"The agencies will need to take these recommendations seriously and take action," he added.
However, Hadiuzzaman does not see visible progress to make the level crossing risk-free.
"The railway is being modernised, but accidents happen because of carerailway mismanagement, carelessness and unskilled employees," said professor Hadiuzzaman, adding, "We need to take some short and long-term measures to prevent these accidents. We will have to create awareness among the level-crossing commuters. We will have to use the level crossings assuming that they are unguarded and risky."
Most drivers in Bangladesh are not educated, as a result they often cannot read road signs. However, Professor Hadiuzzaman suggested constructing three speed-breakers – one after another – on both sides of the level crossings.
"The drivers will need to understand that there is a level-crossing ahead. There should also be flashing lights and bells," he added.
In the long term, automation needs to be implemented. The level-crossing gate will automatically open and close when a train is about to pass.
"The railway is presently recruiting more people to guard level crossings, but they often don't meet the criteria for the minimum level of skills required. Level crossings are a very sensitive, risky place."
Bangladesh is witnessing an increasing number of accidents across the country. The government is constructing expressways but officials are not taking steps towards reducing the identified risks such as illegal drivers, unfit vehicles, and vehicles without route permits.
"Until we address these issues, not much else can be done to stem the number of accidents on the highway."