SOCIETY: THE ROADS OF HAZARD

February 09, 2020

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An over-speeding bus, driving seven students home, rammed into a rickshaw, on Jhang Road in Bhakkar, killing five female students and the rickshaw driver on March 30, 2019 | File photo
An over-speeding bus, driving seven students home, rammed into a rickshaw, on Jhang Road in Bhakkar, killing five female students and the rickshaw driver on March 30, 2019 | File photo

Fayyaz Abbasi was travelling on the Grand Trunk Road to Islamabad with his family, when an oncoming car collided into his. All the passengers received multiple injuries. His 14-year-old niece, Areej Fatima, who was also in the car, fractured her leg. She could not go to school for a year and is paralysed for life. Abbasi’s car was badly damaged and sold to a junkyard.

“I had observed him driving recklessly,” Abbasi says of the driver who hit his car. “I alerted my wife, who was sitting in the backseat, that he may hit someone, when all of a sudden, his car crashed into ours.”

The family was stuck in the smashed car. People rushed to their rescue, but not the driver of the other car. He stayed away, Abbasi recalls.

He turned out to be a driver employed by an influential man. The vehicle was impounded in the police station so, for its release, an FIR (First Information Report) had to be registered. Abbasi knew well that getting justice from the courts would not be an easy task but he had no option but to lodge an FIR.

Since January 20, 2018, Abbasi has regularly appeared before the court in hopes that justice will be served one day. He has spent hundreds of thousands of rupees pursuing the case. “The law provides relief to victims,” he says, “but the corrupt system and its human machinery is a big obstacle.” Everyone from court clerics to lawyers and judges is greedy for money, but they have no concern for serving justice, he deplores.

The cost of road accidents in Pakistan, both in terms of human lives and medical care as well as in terms of vehicle repairs, far exceeds the money the country begs for from the IMF

The case is pending in a session’s court in Islamabad due to the non-appearance of the accused before the court.

In such a case, Advocate Saleem Iqbal says the court may declare the accused a proclaimed offender and the case consigned until his arrest or appearance. If a victim dies in such an accident, the maximum punishment is 10 years and then gradually lessened, proportional to injury.

Death by numbers

The National Road Safety Strategy 2018-2030 produced by the Ministry of Communications states that in Pakistan traffic accidents take a human life after every five minutes.Moreover, it projects an increase by about 77 percent in 2020 and 200 percent by 2030, if no new road safety action is taken. Every year, the economy incurs a loss of around three percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in repairs of damages to vehicles and injuries caused by road accidents.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2016 estimates throw up alarming numbers: Annually 27,500 people die and 500,000 are injured on our roads. Road accidents are a major cause of death among those aged 15-29 years, it states, terming overspeeding as a major high-risk factor.

Furthermore, the fatality rate and injuries per 100,000 population shows an increasing trend in Pakistan, according to WHO.

There is no consistent record of data available with the various concerned authorities regarding road accidents. The data from National Highway and Motorway Police (NHMP), Rescue 1122, the Ministry of Communications, National Transport Research Centre (NTRC), and WHO show major disparity in the reported number of road traffic accidents.

Ali Hussain, an emergency officer at Rescue 1122, Rawalpindi, tells Eos that his office keeps records related to road traffic accidents and also shares it with the headquarters in Lahore. But the data is not utilised in any way for future planning. “We keep record of road traffic crashes as per available capacity and want to share it as well,” says Ali. “But no government department involved in planning and development, even at the local level, has ever approached us.”

Records available with NTRC in Islamabad show that around 50,000 people were killed and more than one million injured from 2006 to 2016 in accidents on the national highways and motorways.

The death rate on roads, which was 2.44 percent in 2012-13, has risen to 3.08 percent in 2017-18, NHMP data reveals. Likewise, the rate of injuries on roads was 5.03 percent in 2012-13 and climbed up to 7.50 percent in 2017-18.

The Road Safety Strategy, while making future projections, states expected fatalities on roads can be more than 10,000 in 2020 and over 18,000 in 2030.

The NTRC documents, available with this correspondent, reflect a regular increase in the number of vehicles on roads in Pakistan. Around two million vehicles are registered annually in Pakistan. The record shows an estimated 16 million [15,568,800] vehicles on the roads in 2015-2016 and this number goes up to an estimated 24 million [24,420,255] in 2017-18 and 25,365,061 in 2018-19.

Projected human & vehicle fatalities

productions Source: National Road Safety Strategy 2018-2030
productions Source: National Road Safety Strategy 2018-2030

Causes

NHMP DSP Asma Naqvi says people’s careless attitude while driving is the main cause of accidents on highways and motorways. She says overtaking and driving in the wrong lane are other major causes. Speed, she says, matters more on highways. “If a driver is travelling at a speed of 50km/h, it means there is 50 percent chance of his or her death and if the driver travels at a speed of 70km/h, it means a 100 percent chance of his or her death,” says Naqvi.

According to Rescue 1122 Rawalpindi records, over -speeding is the topmost killer on our roads; carelessness, u-turns, wrong-turns and tyre bursts are other major contributors to road fatalities annually.

Naqvi says the numbers of accidents vary from highway to highway. “On motorways where small transport, such as motorbike and rickshaw is prohibited, accidents of heavy vehicles is high, while on national highways the ratio of [accidents of] motorbikes and other small vehicles is high.” The National Highway Safety Ordinance (NHSO), 2000, regulates aspects of road safety on the national highway networking between the provinces while the Motor Vehicle Ordinance (MVO), 1965, and the Motor Vehicle Regulation (MVR), 1969, regulate road safety on the provincial road network.

Muhammad Imran, in-charge of the control room at the NHMP headquarters, claims the number of traffic road crashes on national highways and motorways remained low this year as compared to previous years, largely because of better infrastructure and better enforcement of law by the NHMP.

Aside from road quality, improving vehicle safety is a key strategy used to achieve safer road traffic systems internationally. But in Pakistan, this issue is regarded with general apathy. Whereas the Automotive Development Policy (ADP) addresses the issue of vehicle safety regulations,  overall safety standards and environmental compliance continue to fall short of expectations.

It is evident from the review of some legislations that the relevant laws are not only outdated but have not been amended since 1969. These laws have failed to bring changes on the ground as they have not been implemented efficiently and by the responsible institutions. The latest technologies need to be reviewed from the standpoint of human safety, environmental protection and sustainable growth of motorisation in Pakistan.

Farooq Butt, a Rescue 1122 officer, points out “Why doesn’t the state bind vehicle manufacturer companies, especially motorbike manufacturers, to ensure regularisation of policy protocols?”

Muhammad Asif, the control room in-charge at the rescue service, stresses the considerable difference in vehicle inspection and licensing requirements across the country. Whereas the existing laws are set by international vehicle manufacturing standards, locally manufactured vehicles don’t meet that structural standard. “Our vehicles also lack vehicle safety technologies, such as crumple zones, rear seat safety belts, ABS [anti-lock braking system], electronic stability control, side impact protection, airbags and child restraint fixtures,” Asif says.

According to Rescue 1122 Rawalpindi documents, there is a consistent increase in accidents in the city. Chief Traffic Officer (CTO) Rawalpindi Muhammad Bin Ashraf says limited roads capacity, the non-serious attitude of society, poor road infrastructure, lack of planning and development, and shortcomings in the traffic laws are some major contributing factors.

Ashraf maintains that the road traffic situation is a complicated one which demands joint efforts at national as well as provincial level. “The government will have to take some unpopular decisions, such as heavy increase in the chalaan fee, if it wants to control the prevailing situation on the roads. The existing penalising system is not enough to control the situation,” he says.

Traffic wardens are demoralised by commuters’ attitudes, says Ashraf. “The traffic police have highly educated and competent wardens and they are committed to control this health risk factor. But, for the past few years, they have stopped making an additional effort, just because of the non-cooperative and non-serious attitude of commuters.”

Laws and penalties

Under section 320 of Pakistan Penal Code, if a person dies in a traffic accident, the accused may be imprisoned, and the sentence may extend to 10 years under the Diyat law. Whereas the punishments for negligent and rash driving are effective, the procedure under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) is complicated and lengthy.

Section 279 of PPC describes rash driving as an offence, which is bailable but not compoundable. It states: “Whoever drives any vehicle, or rides, on any public way in a manner so rash or negligent as to endanger human life, or to be likely to cause hurt or injury to any other person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to 3,000 rupees or with both.”

In civil remedy, an injured person or deceased family member can file a civil suit of damages against the accused person along with a criminal case. Similarly, the Fatal Accidents Act, 1885 provides compensation to families for loss occasioned by the death of a person caused by actionable wrong.

Senator Pervaiz Rashid argues the existing law has the capacity to control the problem of road accidents, if it is implemented in its true letter and spirit. The PML-N senior leader recommends a comparative study of roads to control human as well as economic losses. “A high-quality road network all over the country is important to control the number of traffic accidents,” he says. “If we want to reduce road traffic crashes, we will have to improve our road infrastructure.” Rashid claims the ratio of road traffic crashes on the motorway is low as compared to GT Road because of better road quality.

He stresses upon the installation of electronic equipment such as speed cameras on all major roads. A lack of adequate public transport is a major reason behind regular increase in private vehicles, especially motorcycles, he points out.

Advocate High Court Malik Saleem Iqbal says fines under PPC must be consistent with the value of the rupee. Traffic police must be better trained and should be authorised to settle petty offences. Traffic laws need amendments for various road-related offences as the existing law doesn’t penalise every kind of road violation. For example, instead of using overhead bridges, pedestrians cross roads directly, but there is no law to deal with this offence.

“There should be separate courts for traffic offences, and the trial period must be time bound,” Advocate Iqbal says. “Traffic offences must be in the domain of the traffic police.”

The National Transport Research Centre chief Hameed Akhter says the devolution of power after the 18th Amendment made the road traffic issue a provincial subject. No updated mechanism has evolved since. “A central body should coordinate capacity-building of relevant departments and ensure availability of quality data.”

The Ministry of Communications has been responsible for the issue for the past three years but no separate budget has been allocated so far, he deplores. The ministry itself can generate financial resources by charging separate fees at the time of registration of vehicles and fixed annual fees. “All this needs commitment and political will,” says Akhter. Many international donors, including WHO, are ready to provide technical and financial assistance to improve the road safety system, according to Akhter, but lack of political will is a drawback.

Dr Muhammad Zaman, assistance professor Sociology Department, Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad, says Pakistan is wasting about nine billion US dollars every year on medical treatment of the injured and the repair of vehicles damaged in accidents. “Pakistan is only getting six billion dollars from the IMF. This means that, every year, what we are receiving from the IMF, in terms of loan with interest, is very little compared to the wastage of money in road crashes.” If state representatives do not take this public health issue seriously, the number of lives, and money, lost will only keep increasing in the future.

Pakistan is a signatory to the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Road Safety Strategy 2017-2030 which sets an overall objective of reducing fatalities on CAREC corridors by a 50 percent by 2030. The accord binds the government to ensure 50 percent reduction in road traffic crashes by 2030. However, successful implementation of this international commitment depends upon the leadership’s strong political will, commitment, allocation of budgets and effective coordination between the centre and provincial governments. Under existing circumstances, achieving even a 30 percent reduction in road traffic crashes seems difficult.

Pakistan has a decade to meet the set target but the government will have to take the lead to make national highways and motorways safe for travel.

The writer is an investigative journalist based in Islamabad and a PhD aspirant She tweets @shizrehman

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 9th, 2020