The dearth of skilled drivers coupled with the absence of any criteria in determining eligibility has resulted in youngsters with antecedents of negligent and rash driving getting behind the wheels of private buses in the district.
Motor Vehicles Department (MDV) officials resort to suspension of the driving licence in cases charged under IPC 338 (causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others) or under IPC 304 A (causing death by negligence). Importantly, revocation of licence is used only sparingly.
In cases where grievous hurt is caused, the licence is suspended for a period ranging between three months and one year while in cases where death is involved the suspension period lasts between one and two years. The Ernakulam RTO alone suspends, on an average, 150 licences a month, though the exact number of private buses involved was not available.
The catch is that the very same drivers can get their licence cleared from the MVD by paying a fee of Rs. 200 and can again play with the lives of the people.
Besides, the MVD has been asking for long to fix at least 30 years as the eligibility for driving private stage carriers. But that has gone unheeded till now. As of now, any 20-year-old with a licence to drive heavy vehicles can be a private bus driver.
M.B. Satyan, State president, Kerala Private Bus Operators’ Federation, is also in favour of making the age limit at least 35 years and considerable experience as the eligibility for driving heavy passenger vehicles. However, in the present scenario where there is a dearth of enough drivers, such a move will leave about 40 per cent of the services cancelled, he said.
Asked why revocation of licence is not used more frequently against private bus drivers at least in cases where death is involved so that the probability of negligence in causing such accidents is brought down, a senior MVD official said that many factors have to be taken into account before revocation.
He said the bus drivers are not always guilty in accidents. For instance, if a two-wheeler rider dies after hitting a bus owing to his own negligence, a case is invariably charged against the bus driver. But one can hardly say that he is guilty. Revocation of licence can be done only in cases where negligence of the bus driver is proved beyond doubt.
Mr. Satyan said that the shortage of skilled and experienced drivers forces bus owners to rope in youngsters. “We make sure that drivers whose licences have been suspended do not drive during the suspension period. But the shortage of drivers means that we have no other way but to take them back once the suspension period is over,” he said.
Every day, at least five per cent of the services are cancelled owing to lack of drivers. Skilled drivers often opt for the KSRTC. Even the youngsters who have gained considerable experience driving private buses grab the first opportunity to get recruited to the KSRTC. For bus owners it means falling back on a rookie all over again.
Though the MVD often organises awareness classes for private bus drivers, the purpose is often defeated. “Without the cooperation of bus operators, the participation of drivers cannot be ensured, as no driver will forgo a day’s wage for attending a class. Besides, it is often the good drivers who want to further hone their skills who attend these classes, defeating the purpose of reforming the bad ones,” he said.