Living dangerously

There are times when I feel as though I’m living in a lunatic asylum where sanity is an expensive commodity. And common sense is not only not common, it is an aberration. I keep getting this strange feeling especially when I’m on the road.

Facing Dhaka’s notorious gridlock as I do every day, on my way out of home and back, or watching it from the seventh-floor balcony of my office overlooking a busy intersection, I feel like the Mad King whose mantra for survival was rather simple: “Burn ’em all!”

Old news: Dhaka has become one of the least liveable cities in the world. Older still: it also happens to be one of the most densely populated cities. Whether or not these two facts have any connection, this city that I call home continues to surprise me by its ability to occupy the very bottom tier of liveability in global rankings year after year.

The overall quality of life in Dhaka has been in constant decline for a number of years. Corruption has become rampant. Prices of essentials are soaring. Pollution is endangering lives. Dhaka’s performance in the five categories generally used to measure a city’s liveability standards—stability, healthcare, culture/environment, education, and infrastructure—has been, to say the least, frustrating.

So why should our life on the road be any different?

It’s true that the quality of life in a city may depend on the neighbourhood one lives in, as abject poverty and crime can be found just blocks away from prosperity. But Dhaka’s roads can be notoriously hazardous no matter which part of the city you are in.

Consider the outdoor hazards/risks that one faces while walking to work, or taking a public bus or driving an automobile. If you are not stuck in traffic, for example, you have speeding drivers who have little respect for traffic regulations. If you’re not mugged in a quieter street, or pushed off the pavement by a motorist/cyclist, you have traffic officers harassing you for reasons only known to them.

And then there are road accidents, dysfunctional transport, illegal parking, overcrowded streets, unpredictable bumps and potholes, dustbins filled to the brink, gender-based harassment, jaywalking, pavements occupied by illegal traders, endless road repairs, spitting, waterlogging, careless throwing of cigarette butts, chewed betel leaf—the list goes on.

And on days like this past Friday and Saturday, with rainstorms sweeping across the city and elsewhere, you can’t even think of going out unless you must.

While there is a general consensus that this shouldn’t be the picture of roads in a capital city, the journey from expectation to action is a long and tough one. If I am to make a list of all the hazards and risks associated with our roads, three would definitely come out on top: gridlock, accidents, and overcrowding.

According to an analysis by the Accident Research Institute (ARI) of BUET, Dhaka’s roads are the most dangerous for people compared to other metropolises in Bangladesh. About 74 percent of road accidents occur in Dhaka alone, while 72 percent of Dhaka’s road fatalities involve pedestrians. In the last six years, 189 people were killed in traffic accidents near 54 intersections, which were identified as dangerous.

When we talk about road safety, we don’t only mean the safety of commuters. It is also intrinsically related to a quality of outdoor life expected by the public in general, an absence of all potential risks and hazards. Road safety, thus, is important for a city to function properly and its people to have a satisfactory outdoor life.

The other day, a friend described how her 67-year-old father was forced to walk all the way from Mohakhali intersection to his residence near Mohammadpur Bus Stand, a good 6-km driving distance, because there were too many people against too few public transports and he couldn’t muscle his way into any one of them. This is a daily reality for a lot of people who have to depend on public transports.

Dhaka has to face the additional challenge of an ever-growing population that may render any measure to address the gridlock and road accident issues futile. While no direct link can be established between overpopulation and road accidents, as far as statistics are concerned, there is a groundswell of opinion that controlling the former can lead to a solution for the latter. But that’s not an easy task.

In a world whose human population is now more than 50 percent urban, the tide of people migrating to Dhaka—for security, employment, education and climate change—may never be fully held back.

Unless there are viable alternatives, people will keep coming here and the streets will get riskier and more crowded by the day. No government may be willing to preside over the unpopular task of wholesale decentralisation any time soon either, which leaves us with no choice but to use whatever resources we have left judiciously and educate the commuters, pedestrians and drivers alike about the importance of responsible behaviour on the streets.

How to make people behave responsibly? There are a lot of theories as to how to solve the traffic issue and make roads safer. I found one symbolic attempt particularly interesting. Last week, according to a report by BBC, motorists caught speeding outside a primary school in Northern Ireland were given the option of avoiding a fine by attending a special court where the judges are children.

In front of a panel of young pupils, the drivers had to explain why they had broken the 30mph speed limit set for the road!

The idea behind the initiative was that meeting the children face-to-face might change the drivers’ behaviour. This may not be a feasible option in Bangladesh but surely our city fathers can find something to keep the overall quality of our life on the roads from sliding further downwards.

It’s important that we understand the urgency of the situation and work together to find and implement solutions, however drastic, that may help us in the long run.

Source: The Daily Star

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