Risking life on the roads

The number of road accidents involving motorcycles can be brought down significantly by following traffic rules

Shehryar Akhtar, 16, went to greet his friend the day after Eid but never returned home. His motorbike was hit by an unidentified vehicle on the Murree Road near Shamsabad about five years ago. He died on the spot. A student of grade 10, Shehryar was the only child of his parents.

“He was a responsible child. He never behaved like some of the youth his age,” says Akhtar Sheikh, his father. Akhtar has appealed to the government to introduce reforms in the transport system and improve monitoring mechanism on roads so that lives can be saved.

According to information collected from Rescue 1122 Rawalpindi office, under Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013 speeding is the biggest cause of deaths. Carelessness, prohibited u-turns, wrong turns and tyre bursts also cause road fatalities.

The record shows consistent rise in motorbike-related fatalities and injuries. 47 people died in motorbike accidents in 2015, 51 in 2016, 59 in 2017, 53 in 2018 and 32 in the first six months of 2019.

In Pakistan, motorcycles comprise about 75 percent of registered vehicles. The Motor Vehicle Ordinance (MVO) and National Highways Safety Ordinance (NHSO) require wearing a helmet by the rider as well as the pillion.

A survey conducted in September 2018 about how many motorcyclists wear a helmet shows that among 124,216 motorcycle riders in Peshawar, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi and Quetta, only six percent wore and strapped their helmets, 28 percent wore it, but did not strap it; five percent carried it but did not strap it on; one percent carried it but never used it, and the rest never used a helmet at all.

The law doesn’t specify a requirement to strap the helmet. The impact of this flaw in the law can be seen on Islamabad-Rawalpindi roads where 70 out of 100 riders wear a helmet but do not buckle it. In a road accident, an unstrapped helmet provides no protection.

Rawalpindi Chief Traffic Officer (CTO), Muhammad Bin Ashraf, is disappointed by the non-serious attitude of commuters about traffic rules. “There is a need to build a national discourse, so that deficiencies in law can be removed before the road traffic situation worsens further,” he says.

The CTO says traffic laws need to be improved to bring down the frequency of various road-related offences, adding that the existing traffic law doesn’t penalise every road traffic violation.

Talking about people who cross a road instead of using an overhead bridge or underpass, he says the law doesn’t deal with this and many other hazardous practices.

When asked if a record of road traffic violations is shared with other stakeholders so that it can be used for planning and development, Ashraf says traffic police maintains a complete record of traffic rules violations, but at the central level there is no sharing mechanism.

The law doesn’t specify a requirement to strap the helmet. The impact of this flaw in the law can be seen on Islamabad-Rawalpindi roads.

He says the traffic police collect millions of rupees in fines from violators of traffic rules every year but the imposition of fine is not effective as most people don’t take the issue seriously. The traffic police chief says the government will have to take some unpopular decisions, such as imposition of heavy fines and prison sentences.

Talking about other factors, he says an increase in the number of vehicles on the roads and a lack of planning of the infrastructure are major contributing factors.

In 2019, as many as 75 people lost their lives and 5,719 suffered injuries. The record reveals that motorcycles are the most dangerous vehicle on the roads. Out of a total of 75 deaths, 32 were of motorcycle riders in Rawalpindi.

In financial terms, the cost of road accidents, which was Rs15, 761,298 in 2015, has risen to Rs21, 069,927 in the first six months of 2019.

Ali Hussain, a Rescue 1122 officer, says growing urbanisation, lack of infrastructure and transport planning, lack of coordination between stakeholders, and non-serious social attitudes are some major contributing factors.

Farooq Butt, another rescue officer, says the state should require motorbike companies to ensure regularisation of their policy protocols but it’s only possible when amendments are made in accordance with the current traffic requirements.

Modification of vehicles, he says, as well as poor road infrastructure are major causes of road accidents.

“There is also a considerable difference in vehicle inspection rules and licensing requirements across the country. These laws were set by vehicle manufacturing standards and the result is that locally-manufactured vehicles have poor structural standards,” Butt adds.

Many vehicles also lack safety technologies, such as crumple zones, rear seat safety belts, ABS brakes, electronic stability control, side impact protection, airbags, and child restraint fixtures. Overloading is a common practice, which increases accident risk besides destroying roads.

It is pertinent to mention here that road accidents are being recognised as a growing public health risk in Pakistan. The Ministry of Communication’s 2018 report states that road accidents take a human life after every five minutes and consume around 3 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the treatment of the injured and repairing the damage every year.

Dr Muhammad Zaman, assistant professor at the Sociology Department, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, says that about 15 million vehicles are currently on the roads. The number is projected to reach 18 million by 2030, adding that a majority of these would be motorbikes.

Dr Zaman believes that it is the government’s responsibility to improve the traffic laws, introduce electronic surveillance, construct vehicles-friendly road infrastructure, and ensure trained drivers so that this growing public health risk factor can be controlled.

Bilal Saleem, an advocate, says the Motor Vehicle Ordinance must be enforced in letter and spirit. He says the lax procedure of acquiring a driving licence and the conditions of roads are major causes of road accidents.

Sharing a record about traffic-related cases in Islamabad courts, Bilal Saleem says the number of reported fatal accidents was 136 and non-fatal accidents 100 in 2017 while the number of fatal accidents was 151 and non-fatal accident 124 in 2018.

Saleem also talks about the number of road accident cases in courts, “People prefer out-of-court settlement of road accidents rather than engaging in litigation.

He suggests separate courts for hearing traffic-related offences. A trial period must be fixed; this requires an amendment in the criminal procedure code. He says the case of a road traffic accident normally takes two to three years to resolve because of complications in legal procedures. He believes that stricter punishments and establishment of model courts can inspire public trust in the judicial system.

Senator Pervez Rasheed says, “We never taught our people about how a nation lives.” He says risks to public health should be part of our curriculum so that a culture of a civilised society can develop. Regarding the growing number of motorcycle on the roads, he says lack of public transport compels people to ride a bike because it is a low-fuel and low-cost transport.

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

Risking life on the roads: Consistent rise in motorbike-related deaths in Pakistan