When 22 passengers boarded the ill-fated Pollachi-bound private bus around 8.30 p.m. on Tuesday, they could not have suspected that they were inside a “death trap”. That is the word that Inspector General of Police, North Zone, C. Sylendra Babu, used later to describe the bus design.

He had also stated that a report would be submitted to the government on the defects in such high-tech bus designs.

Clamour for review

A week after the tragic accident in which 21 victims got charred to death, the clamour for a detailed review of the safety standards and regulatory framework of omnibus operation in the State seems to be only getting louder.

Calling for the immediate implementation of basic safety provisions such as emergency exits on both sides of the bus, well-defined guidelines on bus design and a clampdown on over-speeding, experts say that a long-term strategy on inter-city transport and the role of private operators in it will have to be worked out.

Over 350 private buses operate out of Chennai every day and the omnibus fleet caters to nearly 50 per cent of the passenger volumes.

Most of these private bus operators do not pay adequate attention to safety, says M.K.Subramanian, secretary of the Automobile Association of Southern India. “In most major accidents, the driver jumps out first. Both the driver and the conductor should be trained on how to deal with emergencies. Safety instructions must be given at the start of every trip, similar to what air passengers receive. There must be emergency exits, which are not symmetrically opposite, on either side of the bus and it should be clearly marked by a flashing bulb at night.”

Stressing that none of these norms is being followed, Mr. Subramanian says that everybody, including passengers, is to blame for the lax attention to safety. “One reason for over-speeding is the overwhelming passenger patronage for buses that cover the journey in the least amount of time. How do we reconcile speed and safety? A lot of speed checks should be conducted on the highways. Even the speed limit signboard is not there in many places.”

Passengers such as N. Ramani, a salesperson who frequently travels on private buses, say that in the last 2-3 years most operators have started transporting tonnes of perishable goods on each trip to generate additional revenue. “It causes unnecessary delay to passengers and adds to the bus weight. Losing control at high speeds is a distinct possibility. I regularly travel to Tiruchi and the 320 km is usually covered in five hours. That is almost one kilometre a minute. The lack of a complaint cell run by a government regulatory agency is also an area of concern.”

A. Afzal, Managing Director of Parveen Travels, says “Even government buses load passenger buses with other goods. It has become a necessity because some areas cannot be accessed any other way. Freezer trucks that carry perishable goods have not become a reality in Indian conditions yet.”

Larger concern

The larger concern, he says, is the enforced limited viability of private bus operation through high taxes and permit fees. “It costs between Rs.3 lakh to Rs.4.5 lakh per bus every three months just to keep them on the road.” It leaves little room for genuine innovation, he says.

He adds that while most highways have given a fillip to vehicle speed, the associated road safety infrastructure has not come up to an adequate extent.

Transport Commissioner Harmander Singh said that district-level Road Safety Councils, which have gone defunct, would be revived and a plan of action for each district is being evolved. “We are also considering mandatory use of speed governors for private bus operators, a system which is already in place for the government-operated fleet.”

More In: Chennai