A sociotechnical approach for transport system redesign

by Shahnewaz Hasanat-E-Rabbi | Published: 00:00, May 26,2019

 
 

Students stop a police officer for driving without licence and registration papers at Shahbagh in Dhaka on March 20 during a road safety movement. — New Age/Sony Ramany

The recent tragic incident of Abrar, who was run over by a bus near the Basundhara Residential Area in Dhaka, has raised the some questions that had come to light in the incident of Rajib and Dia, the students of Shahid Ramijuddin College who were run over by a bus in 2018. How much blood is needed to make our road safer? Don’t we have nothing to do? Despite our initiatives, why can we not succeed in reducing the number of road accidents? In Bangladesh, when an accident occurs, with traditional mentality, the accusation automatically goes to the driver with the other factors responsible for that particular accident being untouched and, hence, the focus goes only to arresting drivers (and later their remand on bail) and giving little compensation to the victims’ family, along with commitments for constructing a foot bridge followed by some awareness programmes and a drive against unfit illegal vehicles and drivers with forged documents. Can these initiatives ensure road safety? The answer is ‘no’.
Having both the social elements — road users, authorities or agencies, etc — and technical elements — planning, engineering etc — the road transport system can be expressed as socio-technical system and, according to Jens Rasmussen, a renowned system safety and human factors professor at Risø in Denmark, accidents in complex socio-technical systems take place because of the loss of control over hazardous work processes and it is possible to identify probable root causes of these accidents by using systems approach — sometimes termed AcciMap approach — a method that provides the graphical representation of accidents that can be used to identify the cause-consequence flow of action of various actors within a complex socio-technical system.
In Rajib and Dia’s case: (i) students were standing on the road just after the ramp the flyover ends, (ii) the driver was driving recklessly and competing with other vehicles of the same company, (iii) the driver did not slow when going down along the ramp of the flyover and hit Rajib and Dia along with others, (iv) the driver did not have driving licence for heavy vehicles; he was, rather, driving with the licence meant for light vehicles, (v) the bus was unfit, (vi) the owner was unaware of all this — driver’s licence and vehicle fitness — or just neglected, (vii) the driver was arrested by the police, (viii) the owners’ association said that running on a trip-based contract system would be stopped, which has not till date been implemented.
For Abrar’s case: (i) the pedestrian was crossing the road through a zebra crossing, (ii) the driver, actually the driver’s assistant, was driving recklessly as the driver fled from another spot where he smashed a girl when competing with other vehicles, (iii) the driver did not slow at the sight of a pedestrian on the zebra crossing and, ultimately, hit Abrar, (iv) the driver’s licence was for light vehicles, (v) the bus did not have the right route permit, (vi) the owner was unaware of all this or just neglected, (vii) the driver was arrested, (viii) the owners’ association said that trip-based bus operation would be stopped, which has not been implemented till date.
Although there were some road geometric issues in Rajib and Dia’s incident and road-related issues of Abrar’s case yet to be identified, can we not see the similarities between the facts of these two traffic accidents? The answer is certainly ‘yes’. So, did the actions taken for Rajib and Dia’s incident — eg drives against forged licence or unfit vehicles, pedestrian awareness for crossing safely — stop the recurrence of such tragic event? Are we able to stop reckless driving? The answer is ‘no’. Why, then, are we doing the same thing whenever an accident takes place?
If we ask questions at each of these points, the responses would yield an indication of the weaknesses of the road transport system. At the accident spot of Rajib and Dia, the footpath was discontinued to accommodate the flyover ramp. Pedestrians waiting to grab a vehicle were, therefore, fully exposed to traffic. Besides, there was some vegetation in inner side of the curved ramp which restricts the visibility of drivers and no speed-calming measures were there along the ramp. It can be said that the spot is very hazardous. So, the road authorities — the planners and designers — should shoulder some accountability.
Pedestrians would not be allowed to board and alight vehicles on the road. To stop this kind of risky behaviour, proper road safety education in educational institutions needs to be made mandatory along with strict enforcement of the rules and regulations. We, the guardians, school authorities and law enforcers, should also bear some responsibility.
Reckless driving and fierce competition among bus drivers hav originated from the absence of a route franchise. If there is no trip-based bus operation, drivers would probably not compete with other vehicles to catch more passengers and it would result in safe driving. The city corporations and public transport owners’ association should bear the full responsibility.
Side by side, for lack of sufficient safety-related training, the drivers do not know where to slow down, they do not know of road hazards and they even do not know the meaning of road signs. There is a lack of qualified driving instructors as well as driving schools. Additionally, without appropriate field tests, the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority issues driving licences to people who pass the so-called ‘zigzag test’ only. An ‘appropriate field test’ means a system of inspecting drivers’ driving action on road for a 15–20 minutes’ run. The Road Transport Authority should be responsible for that.
The issue of inappropriate driving licence, unfit vehicles and wrong route permits was the result of the poor activity of the road transport authorities, the police, vehicle owners and the vehicle owners’ association. According to the Road Transport Authority, there is a deficiency of about 1.2 million driving licence than the number of registered vehicles. This means that at least 1.2 million illegal drivers are driving vehicles. So, it results into heavy vehicles being driven with licences for light vehicles or sometimes with forged linces. Irregular and insufficient on-road checking of the road transport authorities and the police do not have much effect on reality on the ground. Owners and owners’ associations would be liable for not checking or ignoring the documents.
Drivers as well as their assistants were arrested in both incidents at hand. But why only them and why not the other people or authorities responsible? A look into the facts shows that there was minimal concentration and insufficient monitoring system from the authorities such as the road transport and bridges ministry and the home affairs ministry in supervise the activities of lower-tier agencies such as the road authorities and the police.
It is, therefore, high time to reform and redesign our transport system to have a more efficient and safe operation. Monitoring cells need to be set up at the central level, ministries that is, to supervise the lower-level activity. The law, justice and parliamentary affairs ministry may formulate laws regarding punishment for not doing work appropriately or regarding the punishment of owners for not checking vehicle documents.
In addition, there should be some agencies with full authority to monitor all the activities related to road safety and to act as advisers to the ministerial works for road safety. The National Road Safety Council might act as the highest authority in road safety issues. A framework for monitoring the road safety programmes must, however, be developed so that the council can monitor and supervise all the activities. To identify the appropriate safety strategies and safety measures, research is mandatory. But, somehow, in reality, we do not feel the need for research and, hence, a minimal budgetary allocation. The council should also assist ministries with a direction for conducting research by respective institutes in this field to ensure traffic order and safety.

Shahnewaz Hasanat-E-Rabbi is a lecturer at the Accident Research Institute, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

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