Updated at 1:03 p.m. ET on 2018-06-20
After watching a viral video of a bus crash at a Dhaka intersection, bus driver Mohammad Faruk Hawlader merely shrugged.
The video shows a man casually crossing the road in the middle of an intersection where there is no pedestrian lane. A bus speeds by and barely misses him. Oblivious, he keeps walking until two other buses violently collide close behind him.
“I have witnessed many terrible accidents with my own eyes,” Hawlader, a 48-year-old father of two, told BenarNews, without elaborating.
The clip offers a glimpse of the traffic gridlock in Dhaka and just how dangerous and chaotic the roads can be for the 7 million bus drivers, rickshaw operators and others who work in Bangladesh’s public transportation sector.
They drive for many hours at a stretch, for very low pay, and mostly without written contracts from their employers or driver’s licenses, union representatives say.
Bangladesh, a South Asian nation of 163 million people, has one of the world’s highest death rates from road crashes, according to the World Bank.
In 2016, at least 6,055 people were killed in road accidents around the country, the Bangladesh Passengers Welfare Association said. During the previous year, more than 8,600 people died on the nation’s roads, it said.
The public transportation sector factors heavily in Bangladesh’s poor road safety record, according to statistics compiled by the national police.
From 1998 to 2005, four out of 10 traffic accidents in Dhaka city involved at least one transit bus, and nearly 40 percent of those crashes were classified as fatal, police figures show.
“The bus drivers of our country usually die prematurely and most of those who survive are paralyzed,” Majibur Rahman Khan, acting president of Dhaka City Road Transport Workers Union, told BenarNews.
Long hours, low pay
Hawlader said Bangladeshi drivers can spend 18 hours a day negotiating the streets of Dhaka, where, according to independent studies, the average traffic speed is only 7 km per hour (4 mph).
Other drivers pull longer hauls that take them far from the capital.
Most of the buses in Bangladesh are privately owned, and many drivers and their assistants are paid for each trip they complete. They don’t receive a fixed salary or overtime compensation, and are also not paid extra if they encounter delays during a road trip.
Most agreements between bus owners and transport workers are verbal, not written.
“They all work on a per-trip agreement. Because of that, they do not get an extra fee for additional work,” State Minister for Labor and Employment Mujibul Haque told BenarNews.
Jakir Hossain (pictured), 45, has worked as a long-haul bus driver for 17 years.
Hossain often drives an inter-district route between Dhaka and Gopalganj, in southwestern Bangladesh.
“Moving to the destination and returning from there is considered a ‘trip,’ and in this way our fee is calculated,” he told BenarNews.
“Due to traffic congestion at the ferry terminal, sometimes it takes 36 to 48 hours to complete a trip on the Dhaka-Gopalganj route,” he said.
As long as public transportation drivers are working without written contracts and paid per trip, there will be sharp competition for passengers and pressure to complete trips quickly, thereby increasing dangers on the nation’s roadways, according to a union leader.
“This is the main reason” for the high number of road accidents, Osman Ali, secretary general of the Road Transport Workers Federation, told BenarNews.
Transport and police officials often blame drivers for accidents, citing rash driving as the chief cause.
But drivers told BenarNews that their passengers constantly hassle them to drive fast, distracting them from their work and goading them to drive aggressively.
“We have to quarrel with the passengers during the day and at night with the bus owner,” minibus driver Mohammad Bashir, 32, told BenarNews.
Despite typical 18-hour days driving on congested roads, Dhaka drivers only make an average daily income of about 1,200 taka (about U.S. $14), he said.
Haque, the state minister for labor and employment, said the government tried several initiatives but it had failed to persuade owners of bus companies and transportation firms to give their drivers and workers written employment contracts in order to alleviate the workplace grievances.
“We said that the workers should be given appointment letters, but the owners are not very interested,” Haque told Benar, referring to letters that serve as contracts.
Bus drivers: ‘Main culprits’
Transport workers were the target of a recent editorial by the Dhaka Tribune that bore the sensational headline “Murderers behind Wheels.”
“Time and time again, the main culprits are the bus drivers,” the May 18 editorial railed.
“These buses continue to run amok with unlicensed and unverified bus drivers behind the wheel,” it said, as the newspaper narrated how a senior executive of its ad department had died when a bus hit his motorcycle and ran him over.
Some recent ghastly accidents did not help the negative reputation of public transport drivers.
On April 3, a 22-year-old student, Rajib Hossain, had his right hand severed when it got stuck between two speeding buses, police said. He later died in hospital.
Eight days later, Runi Akter, a student who was in the final stages of her MBA degree, was rushing toward a road divider when a speeding bus ran over her, crushing her legs against the pavement, local reports said. She is still undergoing treatment at a hospital.
Untrained and unlicensed public transport drivers could be a big part of the dangers of venturing out onto the nation’s roadways, according to Mozammel Haque Chowdhury, secretary general of the Bangladesh Passenger Welfare Association (BPWA).
Chowdhury said his group had conducted a survey which found that of the estimated 7 million public transit drivers in Bangladesh, only 1.6 million had valid driving licenses. Transportation officials could not immediately confirm those figures.
But bus drivers like Jakir Hossain seethe at the notion that drivers bear the blame for the high number of accidents. Pedestrians should strictly follow the law, he said.
Kazi Md Saifun Newaz, an assistant professor at Buet’s Accident Research Institute (ARI), said that reckless driving was not the sole cause of the accidents.
Passengers riding on buses should be more responsible about not encouraging drivers to drive recklessly, and more pedestrian overpasses and crossings need to be built into the road system to improve safety, he told the Dhaka Tribune in April.
“We need more zebra crossings, barricades in the middle of the street, and the pedestrians should use foot-over bridges to strengthen the traffic control system,” he said.
Chowdhury, the BPWA secretary general, told BenarNews that around 1.5 million unregistered vehicles operate in Bangladesh in addition to the registered ones.
“This means there could be over three million legal and illegal vehicles being driven by unqualified drivers who are not only risking themselves, but putting a large number of people in peril,” he said.
Responding to criticism about the country’s road safety record, government officials have been coming out on a near daily basis with statements about how it is trying to reduce accidents and traffic fatalities by working to improve the roadways and traffic management systems.
During a press conference last month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called, among other things, for the Bangladeshi media to help her government raise public awareness about national traffic laws in order to promote safer driving and bring down the number of road-related deaths.
“It is necessary to take steps to educate people in every school about the traffic laws,” Hasina said. “Only then can the accidents be reduced.”