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Motorway disaster

September 28, 2011

IT was a tragic day for over two dozen Pakistani children and their parents. At least 29 students were killed on Monday when a bus bringing them home from a school picnic careened off the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway. The information available so far points to negligence on the part of multiple authorities. The bus reportedly had a capacity of less than 60 people, but over 100 were packed into it. According to parents, school authorities refused when asked to hire a second bus. Second, according to the Faisalabad district administration this commercial vehicle had been issued a fitness certificate earlier this year and had received permission to travel from Faisalabad to Sialkot. Yet the bus was travelling on the Motorway, and eyewitnesses who were aboard say its brakes failed and that it seemed poorly maintained.

Despite their reputation for effectiveness, the Motorway Police also have questions to answer. The Kallar Kahar area where the crash took place is an accident-prone one and is heavily manned. But police still failed to address the overloading, even when they checked the bus as it entered the Motorway. Surviving students also claim the driver was speeding; if so, that too went unchecked. Police authorities claim the brake failure was primarily responsible for the crash and, had the driver taken advantage of emergency exits along the Motorway, there would have been fewer casualties. Regardless of these initial arguments, it is important that the organisation’s planned internal inquiry is an impartial one and that its lessons are incorporated to develop a better policing system on this major highway.

Ultimately, though, all of the failures in this case are worryingly common in Pakistan. Overloaded, badly maintained buses are a routine sight. Most tend to have iron bars on their windows, turning them into death traps once their lone door is blocked. Speeding and disregard for other road rules is the norm. And transport for schoolchildren is run by private companies that may or not may be evaluated by school authorities or registered — and submitted to strict fitness tests — for the purpose. All of which means that Pakistan’s series of deadly bus accidents should come as no surprise. Fourteen children died in June when the bus taking them to school plunged into a canal in Kashmir, reportedly due to speeding. Over 30 people burned to death when a drowsy driver rammed a bus into an oil tanker on the Super Highway in January, with no firefighting facilities nearby for relief. All these cases demonstrate that a number of different authorities will have to shape up if Pakistan is to change this deadly record.