When a Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) bus fatally knocked down a 19-year-old cyclist after allegedly jumping a traffic signal on Kamaraj Salai last Sunday, a public outcry was not really expected.
After all, nearly 150 people die in accidents involving MTC buses, on an average, every year. Fatalities due to MTC buses account for 25 per cent of all accident deaths that occur on the city's roads every year. The victims are mostly pedestrians and cyclists. Some MTC drivers go so far as to say many of these accidents are “unavoidable”.
But last week, outraged family members and others staged a protest and stopped traffic on the busy road. M.Kirubakaran, the victims' father, complained that “MTC buses regularly jump signals. If basic road rules had been followed, my son would still be alive.”
While the number of fatal accidents caused by MTC has declined marginally over the past three years, there has been a steady increase in overall accidents. Total number of accidents involving MTC buses rose from 1,455 in 2007-08 to 1,710 in 2009-10.
The increased congestion on the city's roads which has imposed an artificial average speed limit of 21 kmph seems to have prevented at least some of the fatalities.
P. Bagawanth, an MTC driver with 27 years of experience, says that except for a few cases, no one has been removed from service for causing a fatal accident. “Drivers are also under a lot of stress and do not intend to commit accidents. Usually, they are made to undertake a mandatory 20-day training programme and are reinstated into service.”
He says that since the “only motivation is completing the shift”, drivers rush to complete their quota of eight singles. The issue of outdated ‘route charts', which stipulate timings for the completion of each trip, has been repeatedly raised. Drivers say that traffic congestion and the number of junctions with automatic signals have increased manifold since a journey time for each route was first fixed.
“We do not even get the 30 minutes of mandated rest after every four hours,” says Mr. Bagawanth.
In the rush to finish the trip within the mandated time, many drivers violate traffic rules. A majority of accidents occur between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., which are the closing times for the morning and evening shifts, respectively.
S.A. Vijayakumar, former head of various State-run bus corporations, says that the ‘route chart' cannot be used as an excuse for violating traffic rules. “If a lot of time is given, will zero accidents happen? Refresher training must depend on the type of mistake that a driver made. Currently, it is purely classroom training and it is not going to make any difference.”
According to him, internal studies show that a majority of accidents happen near bus stops or traffic signals. “The space around bus shelters must be completely redesigned. Besides, there is no attention to accident investigation and research. MTC must start working on a holistic accident prevention programme,” Mr.Vijayakumar adds.
A senior MTC official said that no other segment of drivers spends more than eight hours behind the wheel continuously in city traffic everyday. “The nature of the job and the stress is a major factor for accidents. We are trying yoga lessons and defensive driving workshops to tackle the problem,” he said.