According to the new Road Transport Act, 2018 anybody who does not use a zebra crossing, footbridges or underpasses, when required, would be fined Tk 10,000 or a jail sentence for a month. In the worst case, both.
In consideration of Bangladesh's rudimentary traffic system, such radical measures can fuel enthusiasm of the public. But will it fix the problem?
In a city that lacks basic infrastructures like footpaths, zebra crossings, or footbridges in many of the key places, successful implementation of such laws would be a tough job.
Add to that the flawed employment system in the transport sector. Busses that ply the roads have no strict employment policy to follow. The drivers and the conductors receive a daily payment instead of a monthly salary, thus the system make them incline towards competing for more passengers, since that is exactly what translates into more income. This, in turn, puts passengers and pedestrians at risk on a daily basis.
Public transports in Dhaka city run under myriad of companies and have no unified system to bring discipline in routes, payment of fare and employment of drivers and assistants. Though High Court ordered that the bus companies must appoint drivers on monthly wages in the full verdict of the Rajib Hasan compensation case after he lost his hand in a road accident and later died on April 17, 2019.
But the question is, who is going to implement such directive?
The government's past track in implementing the Motor Vehicle Ordinance, 1983, or the meter-based fare system in public transports, however, poses a legitimate question about its competence in implementing the new law.
The effectiveness of any law remains iffy when a law is formulated way ahead of the necessary conditions for implementation is created. Experts feel addressing the shortcomings of the transport sector was an imperative.
Professor Mizanur Rahman, director of Accident Research Institute of BUET, thinks that proper infrastructure should have been ensured prior to implementation of the law. He questioned the legitimacy of charging people with fines and imprisonment without ensuring enough facilities for them to follow the law in the first place.
Mizanur Rahman feels that the most pertinent issue is whether Dhaka city has enough parking facilities. "When there are not enough parking lots in the offices or at the shopping malls, how can you charge penalties for violations?"
From pedestrians, motor bikers to the buses and larger vehicles on the roads, the new road transport law has come into effect with fines for violators ranging from Tk5,000 to Tk5 lakh, and one month to five years of imprisonment.
The high amount of fine poses questions about the intention of the authorities, since the immediate issue is linked to the capacity of the violators to afford the fines. Also, experts on road safety have expressed concerns over whether the revenues earned as fines would benefit the government or serve the interests of the corrupt officials instead.
On this note, Professor Md Shamsul Hoque, former director of Accident Research Institute of BUET, told a local newspaper, "Police will be interested in enforcing the law against the weaker road users – pedestrians at the lowest tier. At the end of the day every law is turned into a source of income."
Professor Rahman, however, considers this massive fine as a rather symbolic effort to prevent people from breaking the law. "Collecting fines should not be the main idea. The idea is to use the fines and jail terms as a deterrent."
Equal implementation of the law is another major challenge. In consideration of the socio-economic pattern of Bangladesh, mass people on the roads have more chances to be netted in the hands of law. Whereas the larger vehicles like the buses and trucks are protected by powerful organisations, this law may end up targeting primarily the pedestrians, private cars, bikes and CNG-run auto-rickshaws.
On the application of the law, Professor Rahman recommends the government officials and VIPs to set examples first by obeying the traffic rules themselves. "The people in power violating the law discourage general people from following it. If the people at the helm begin to obey the law, the general people will be inspired to do the same," Professor Rahman added.
In Dhaka, we have repeatedly experienced police officers and VIPs breaking traffic rules indiscriminately in the past. Consequently, the authorities failed terribly in the implementations of the past laws. To ensure that the new law doesn't turn out as a mere paper tiger like the past ones.
A successful implementation of any law requires it to be in sync with the reality it seeks to address. No measure of placebo would suffice as far as curbing of chaos on roads is concerned, nor would the situation be improved by policing only. An expert, while expressing dissatisfaction over the delay of implementation of the law by the authority, said that there should have been months of preparation. A series of orientation programmes would have prepared the ground for both police and the public before enforcement of the new act.
Perhaps our national tendency to organise the saddle before acquiring the horses need to be rethought too.