Highway recipe for disaster

Highway recipe for disaster
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Highway Recipe for Disaster, Driving Culture, Luxury Travel Buses, State-of-the-Art Roads. There should be five-meter-wide dividers in between the lanes of the road. But it does not mean that they should be converted into green forests.

There should be five-meter-wide dividers in between the lanes of the road. But it does not mean that they should be converted into green forests.

While drivers lack in driving culture, luxury travel buses thrive on corruption and bribery while the so-called ‘high standard state-of-the-art roads’ do not have any security culture. The result is that heaven on wheels turned into hell that burnt 45 persons alive.

The inferno showed that either our roads are not fit for Volvo-type high-speed buses or our travel businessmen care for more money and security becomes lax. The technology of the Volvo luxury bus appears to be a killer one as glass panes could not be broken and there was no other exit except the tiny way forward to the single door near the driver’s seat. When every control was at the fingertips of the driver, none knows why the door unlocking could not be there or why it could not be unlocked.

The fatal accident on October 30 of the Volvo bus belonging to Jabbar Travels at Palem of Mahbubnagar district was more a man-made incident than an accident. First to blame is the bus operators whose greed goads them not to implement road safety standards. Second is the Road Transport Authority that does not make frequent and proper inspection of roadworthiness of a vehicle, overloading, unauthorized carriage of luggage, including explosives, unregulated pick-up points and unscientific stoppages, no emergency exit plans or crisis management availability on the bus, absence of trained persons to guide passengers in panic. None questions these serious lapses; or people have to infer from such incidents that the RTA is influenced by the travelers in not checking these defects.

If accidental hitting of a culvert, as reported, while overtaking another vehicle at uncontrollable speed of 140 km per hour, has the potential of killing five or ten people, it is the lack of a crisis management plan and practices that killed more than 35 persons. The posture of the bodies that remained in the burnt out bus showed that most of them were trying to come out of the bus.

The questions that arise are: Why did the fuel tank explode by a hit? Why could not the locked doors be opened? Why there was no equipment like hammers and arrangements to break the glasses from inside the bus? If the claims of the Volvo spokespersons are to be believed, why were the wires which were supposed to be fire-retardant, got burnt, and why four emergency exits through the windows could not be opened by the passengers. Did the driver or his assistant know of the existence of these exits? Why did not Volvo insist that such information be exhibited in language that could be understood easily? Why did the RTA not insist on such safety or crisis plan measures when these high-speed luxurious buses were designed with potential security risks?

It was also claimed that the fuel tank was at the front of the bus below the first axel and that it was not made of metal but by roto moulded plastic which might only crack and spill the fuel but could not cause massive explosion. Then how did the bus turn into an inferno so fast?

Were the Volvo bus drivers and assistants trained as claimed by the Volvo Company? Are training norms meant only for the State transport buses and not for those of the private transport companies? If the drivers are really trained, how could the driver run away from the bus instead of trying to save the passengers using his technical training? If the answers to these questions indicate the fault of the Volvo, the company should be held liable for both civil and criminal wrongs. They should pay huge damages to dependents of the deceased while the company’s managers should go to jail along with operators if found irresponsible.

Media reports stated that some white granule-like material was found from the bus. What could that be? If the material used in building the bus partially was fire retardant, but what was transported by the bus in the huge luggage space for extra money, with or without the knowledge of the travel operator, was combustible material, the operator should take the major responsibility.

In such air-conditioned vehicles there will be a central locking mechanism which might get jammed when such accidents occur. It is generally advised to carry hammer within the cars having central locking systems. Near the emergency exits or windows there should be hammers fixed. None knows whether Jabbar had such hammers in the bus. It is not possible to break the glasses with hands.

State authorities, such as the RTA, are expected to check whether such buses possess the safety equipment and to see that these safety measures are followed strictly. It is reported that RTA has seized 185 for violating several norms.

Thus, at the regulatory level the State government is also answerable as to whether the four-lane highways are ready to take high speed buses. Ditches and holes on the road can also lead to death. Sudden heights and slopes were left on the highways which became death traps. Quality deficiency, maintenance defects, lack of proper notifications at points of entry into highway from the service roads or adjoining villages, lack of communication facilities and medical emergency attendance are the reasons either for fatal accidents or post-accident lack of aid which multiplies fatalities. VIPs like Yerram Naidu died in a highway accident because there was no communication for more than 45 minutes. He could have survived had there been oxygen facility nearby. Travel companies, investigators and the State are blaming driving negligence alone. In the Palem bus case also an attempt is made to divert opinion and responsibility to the driver who was compelled to change the version and say he had dozed off for a moment.

There should be five-meter-wide dividers in between the lanes of the road. But it does not mean that they should be converted into green forests. Grown up trees beyond the required height are not cut; thus they offer fodder for the cattle of roadside villages, besides obstructing the view of the drivers. Drivers either do not get to know in pitch dark or even during the day they have to put up extra effort to slow down, divert or avoid animals obstructing the way. Defective maintenance of these roads caused 1339 accidents in 2012, killing 580 persons, according to official reports.

The National Road Safety Council had warned against permitting wine shops within 100 meters from the highway; the warning is ignored. Then there are the belt shops. It is no surprise Andhra Pradesh ranks first in the number of deaths in road accidents. Its excise policy aims at high profits unmindful of safety. It is reported that private bus travels owners’ association has promised to give Rs 1 lakh each to the victims’ families. The State government and the bus makers also are liable.

The writer is Professor & Coordinator, Center for Media Law and Public Policy, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad

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