If it is 30 per year in Mumbai, 69 per year in Bangalore and 83 in Delhi, it is 112 in Chennai. We are speaking of the number of fatal accidents involving buses run by city transport corporations. That is a first that Chennai will not be proud about. The recent toppling over of a bus from the Gemini flyover has only served to highlight the poor safety record that our Metropolitan Transport Corporation enjoys. And this is despite the city having the smallest fleet strength among the Indian metros. The question is, what are we doing about it?
Officialdom is rather expectedly in denial mode. It claims that Chennai has one of the best accident-reporting systems and hence its figures are higher. This implies that other cities are choosing not to report the correct statistic. Whatever be the truth in that claim, Chennai’s figure is alarming and it would do well to ponder over what it can do to bring it down to international standards.
One of the most common reasons for accidents is over-speeding on the part of the MTC buses. Using their sheer size to their advantage, these vehicles do not seem to obey any traffic rules. They jump signals, bulldoze their way through traffic and pay scant heed to the protests of other road users. The police, long frustrated in their attempt in bringing any errant MTC driver to book, have chosen to give up and watch with indifference. Other cities have installed speed-governors in their buses which set off alarms each time the bus exceeds 50 kmph in speed. In Chennai too these were installed amidst much fanfare but they are functioning on very few buses now.
Many of the MTC drivers who ply vehicles on dense traffic routes are inexperienced. They are not trained sufficiently. This is to be contrasted with Mumbai where only drivers with over five years of experience are allowed to drive buses on arterial roads. This policy has seen the number of accidents come steadily down in that city over the past two years. BEST, which is the local operator, is hoping to reach international standards in safety this year.
While it may not be true of all bus drivers, alcohol and substance abuse remains a real problem that is, of course, not endemic to drivers in Chennai alone. But other cities have found ways to tackle this menace. In Bangalore, it is now the practice to check the alcohol levels in the driver’s blood each time a bus leaves the depot. There is also the question of stress. And certainly, driving all day on our roads is perhaps the most stressful occupation. The State has undertaken to provide courses in yoga to the bus drivers, but these have been half-hearted attempts with poor follow-up sessions.
The maintenance of most MTC buses is said to be abysmal. In the Gemini flyover accident, the driver has claimed that his seat buckled under him at the crucial turn and this caused him to press the accelerator. A recent report had it that the MTC has fared very poorly in recruiting technical staff. Against a prescribed ratio of 1.25:1 of technicians vs buses, MTC manages with 0.8:1 and some depots have only two technicians when the required number is 12. Added to this is the high salary structure of the MTC which translates into Rs. 3000 per bus per day. That leaves very little for maintenance. And with buses during peak hours carrying two to three times the permitted number of passengers, breakdowns are more frequent. Despite receiving Central Govern-ment aid for upgrading its maintenance facilities, MTC has very little to show for it.
All this does not show our transport system in a good light. And it also shows scant respect for human safety. With the MRTS also receiving its share of brickbats, when will our city’s transport infrastructure become world-class?