Those ghastly images would make the front page every morning – mangled buses that had collided head-on along the Dhaka-Chattogram or Dhaka-Mymensingh highway. Fatalities would often reach double-digits.
So, when these two major highways were widened to four lanes with dividers to segregate traffic, the logical conclusion was that accidents would come down.
A data check on accidents and casualties shows a drastic safety improvement along these ways, making sense for widening and segregating traffic.
The Business Standard compared data on accidents, deaths and injuries on these highways of 2017 when these roads were still two lanes with those of later years until 2020.
Accidents on Dhaka-Chattogram highway have come down by 32% since 2017 and by 37% on Dhaka-Mymensingh highway.
Fatalities were reduced by 46% on the Dhaka-Chattogram highway last year compared to 2017. Mymensingh road death toll however did not improve much, coming down only by 16%.
Police and transportation experts point out a significant factor that left Mymensingh road still risky – lack of foot over-bridge-- which is present on the Chattogram road. People just try to run across the road and get hit.
Highway police map divides the 240-kilometre Dhaka-Chattogram highway in two stretches – Kanchpur to Bhoberchar point, and Cumilla's Daudkandi to Chattogram city gate point.
Data show that Dhaka-Chattogram highway could have been even safer if not for a 39-kilometre stretch between Kanchpur, the exit of Dhaka, and Bhoberchar close to the Meghna river where the number of accidents has actually increased.
Monir Zaman, officer-in-charge of Kanchpur highway police, said tricky turns on the road before Kanchpur bridge and the often foggy conditions contribute to the frequent accidents in that stretch.
But Accident Research Institute (ARI) Director Dr Md Hadiuzzaman said the portion of the highway is witnessing frequent accidents due to speed inconsistency, haphazard local roads connecting to the highway, road-side markets and small vehicles from the opposite direction.
He said slow-speed vehicles from the two-lane Dhaka-Sylhet route and other feeder roads directly enter the highway in the stretch as there are no traffic adjustment measures at the junctions. The speed mismatch in some cases leads to traffic accidents.
Dr Hadiuzzaman advocated for access control through grade separation at the intersections to make the road widening of real benefit.
Lalpol: A risky spot on Dhaka-Chattogram highway
Along the Cumilla section of Dhaka-Chattogram highway, there are cautionary signs warning of "risky" or "dangerous" turns and the risk of reckless driving or jaywalking. No such signs are there in the Feni section.
After crossing two flyovers — one over rail tracks and the other over the Mohipal intersection, speeding vehicles have to come to an abrupt stop at an unauthorised signal at Lalpol to allow auto-rickshaws to cross the highway.
There is a gap in the median just a kilometre ahead, but the three-wheelers use the shortcut and cut across the highway on their way to and from the road connecting Sonagazi upazila. At least three "signal men'' are posted there to stop the highway traffic and allow the vehicles to drive across the highway. They are paid from toll collected from auto-rickshaws using the road.
Bumpy ride on Dhaka-Mymensingh route
Police data show the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway had an alarming consistency in road fatalities in the last four years. The death toll in these years, except 2019, stayed over a hundred.
The number of accidents in 2017 was 135 and the fatality was 154. Next year, in 2018, the number of accidents was slightly less at 124 but fatality rose to 192. There was a drop in accidents in 2019. Seventy-two persons perished in 101 accidents that year. Number of accidents had an alarming rise in 2020. There were 211 accidents with 130 fatalities.
Rahamat Ullah, superintendent of police (operation and special affairs) of highway police, said the Dhaka-Chattogram highway is smooth, has several foot over-bridges and strictly maintains "no market on the road" policy.
But the 115 kilometre long Dhaka-Mymensingh highway does not have a single over-bridge, some portions of it are battered and packed with banned three-wheelers – making the route more accident-prone, said the police official.
"The banned three-wheelers make the highway full of hindrances. Moreover, people jaywalk amid the speedy traffic since the highway does not have any foot over-bridge," he added.
He told The Business Standard that some portions of Dhaka-Mymensingh highway are crumbling too – which led to squeezing down the normal vehicular flow on the entire route.
A rise in rear end collisions
Though head-on collisions used to cause the most fatalities in road accidents, last year's data show a change in road mishap pattern as most mishaps on highways were rear end collisions.
Pedestrian crossing highways, local bazars on roads and also speed-inconsistency are the frequent causes for the rear-end collision on highways.
Abdul Malek, a bus driver of Dhaka-Chattogram highway, said head-on collisions on the highway were frequent before 2017.
"Now the road is so smooth that such collisions have become rare," he added.
Explaining the causes of accidents, highway police official Rahmat Ullah said, "Speedy vehicles often lose control and hit slow-moving ones from the rear when overtaking the slow-paced one."
The four lanes of both the highways have road-dividers that have decreased head-on crashes. But the numbers of head-on collisions are still grim.
There were 793 rear end collisions last year, the highest, while the number of head-on collisions was 287.
Highway police analysis says covered vans, CNG auto-rickshaws and others were involved in most head-on collisions.
According to police data, speeding caused 489 mishaps last year, while 224 accidents were from vehicles overturning.
Most mishaps in the morning
Highway police said most of the mishaps in the last three years occurred between 7 to 8 in the morning, while there were fewer accidents at midnight.
Police say drivers start to feel sleepy in the morning after driving all night. Besides, there is a heavy rush of traffic during the morning hours.
In contrast, roads have relatively less traffic at midnight.
According to police, 629 mishaps occurred during 6am-12pm last year, 558 during 12pm-6pm, and 344 during 6pm-12am.
Delowar Hossain, a bus driver in the Dhaka-Mymensingh route, said many stretches of the route have developed so many potholes that they have to slow down to a crawl.
"When drivers reach a smoother stretch, they speed up to cover the time," he added.
Dhaka and its outskirts have become dotted with industries and new factories are being set up in the north-eastern region of the capital – adding more traffic to the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway.
Delowar said even four lanes now cannot cope with the rapid rise in manufacturing-led traffic on that route.
Meanwhile, Dhaka-Sonagazi bus driver Mohammad Khokon said he and other Dhaka-Chattogram highway drivers face "auto-rickshaw menace from the opposite side" on the route.
"We do not dare to say anything to them since they are locals."
Khokon said slow covered vans also force them to reduce speed and cause speed mismatch. "Occupying an entire lane, those covered vans run at 40-50 km per hour while the average speed on the highway is around 80 km per hour," the driver added.
'Only four lanes would not solve the problem'
ARI Director Dr Md Hadiuzzaman said four lanes on Dhaka-Chattogram and Dhaka-Mymensingh routes did not meet the expectation about decreasing accidents.
"Last year, you may have seen a lower number of accidents as well as casualties on both the major highways. It was not for the four lanes, rather for the limited movement of people around the year owing to the pandemic," he added.
The ARI director also told TBS that solely depending on four lanes or widening the roads would not solve the problem. "To curb the accidents, we need to develop and emphasise water and rail transportations," he added.
What do the authorities say?
Highway police official Rahamat Ullah said they have introduced speed gun and closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras on Dhaka-Chattogram highway to reduce speeding.
Pointing out the police's round the clock patrolling to keep the highway moving and occupation-free, Rahamat Ullah said they adopted zero tolerance to on-road and roadside bazars.
Highway police said they evicted 174 makeshift markets on Dhaka-Chattogram highway alone in 2020.
On Lalpol auto-rickshaw crossing, Md Nazrul Islam, Cumilla region superintendent of police (recently promoted to additional deputy inspector general) told TBS that they were aware of that.
"Local politicians, administration and local public representatives allow the crossing. But we suggested an underpass at that spot to the authorities," Nazrul Islam further said.
Meantime, highway police chief Mallick Faqrul Islam told TBS that they had been arranging regular training for the drivers as part of their ongoing awareness campaign.
He said police trained 2,486 bus and truck drivers on road safety in December last year. Besides, highway police in different regions are holding monthly workshops for drivers.