Road safety in Pakistan is the not-so-silent killer everybody is ignoring
The tragic incident of a bus on its way to Karachi from Quetta that killed 41 persons on January 30 is telling about the passenger transport business in Pakistan, the driving culture, apathy of the authorities and the fatalism of the population. The ill-fated bus fell off a bridge near Lasbela after hitting its pillar, and tumbled down hundreds of feet. Only eight people survived, some with critical injuries, as the bus caught fire and the passengers were burnt to death beyond recognition requiring DNA tests to identify the victims. Early investigation of the accident by local police suggests that the bus had a technical fault and had been stumbling and lurching all the way, but the driver refused to stop, fix it, or listen to the complaints of the passengers.
In a country with strict adherence to traffic rules or where police effectively monitor the roads the bus would have been stopped. On inter-city roads and inter-provincial highways, the owners, drivers, and staff are too rough for poor passengers to protest over speeding, crowding, and loading of incendiary materials. It is suspected that the bus had a load of cannisters of cheaper diesel and petrol that is routinely smuggled out of Iran and sold in Karachi. It is also reported that the bus had been banned from operating in the past for over-speeding, but there is no system to maintain such a record or check buses if they and the drivers have previous offences attached to them.
Fatal road accidents are a routine matter in Pakistan. The families mourn the death of loved ones, police register a case of attempted murder and negligence, as they did in this case, but nobody, not even the prosecutors, pursue traffic accidents to logical conclusions.
After hitting headlines for a few days, the public and authorities forget about what happened. In many cases, the families of the victims forgive the drivers and squash the case, considering it was not a wilful act of humans, but the ‘will of God.’ With thousands of vehicle crashes happening every year, it is very hard to see convictions. According to the latest figures compiled by the World Health Organization for 2020, 28,170 people lost their lives in Pakistan from road accidents, which is 1.93% of all deaths, one of the highest in the world. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics presents a much lower figure, 5,608 for 2021 with 13,059 injuries, which doesn’t seem to be credible because of the faulty system of collecting data through police reports. For instance, the World Bank funded Global Road Safety Facility quotes 52,708 deaths for the year 2016. The cost of fatalities and injuries in economic terms is estimated to be in the tens of billions. Among Asian countries, Pakistan tops the list both in number of traffic accidents and resulting casualties.
After hitting headlines for a few days, the public and authorities forget about what happened. In many cases, the families of the victims forgive the drivers and squash the case, considering it was not a wilful act of humans, but the will of God.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Road accidents have consistently been on the rise for the past two decades with poor and ineffective policy responses to prevent loss of life and property. Most of these accidents take place within crowded and haphazardly expanding urban areas, where due to absence or inadequate public transport, the number of vehicles of all types, small, big, and commercial has substantially increased. However, the major accidents causing tens of deaths in a single incident take place on the major highways. The reasons are well known among the public, the police, and relevant administrative authorities. Among these, overworked drivers, dilapidated vehicles, bumpy roads, and over-speeding cause head-on collisions, swerving from the roads bumping into trees, other vehicles or falling into ditches. In the Lasbela accident, a few survivors who could talk to the press, say the driver behind the wheel fell asleep. An interview with a former manager of a private bus company reveals that the drivers get more as per trip wages than the actual salary, so they have an incentive for reaching fast and getting ready for the next journey. These drivers plying in remote areas on difficult terrain are generally ill-trained, illiterate, and some are even on drugs, hashish being the most popular among them.
The real problem is the poor road safety mechanism and checking by the highway or even motorway police. We routinely observe that on motorways, manual speed-checks on a couple of fixed places is not enough to control speeding, frequent lane-changing and heavy commercial vehicles running parallel in two lanes or driving in the takeover lane. About the traffic management on highways, the police presence is scant, and when they are spotted, they may be found extorting bribes from truckers, vans, and bus drivers. Nothing is hidden from the authorities, but like other aspects of national life, such a colossal loss of life and life-long injuries to citizens don’t move them to take effective measures. Vehicle inspection is in place here and there, but one can easily get false certification for new notes of currency. It seems life, health and human dignity have lost value in the anarchic conditions on the roads of Pakistan.
— Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).