12/19/2014 04:42 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Ignorance Is Perilous

By Tarini Mohan

An onslaught of vehicles on a snake-like road, a horde of pedestrians on either side and drivers playing a guessing game with the wheel - such is life on the road in many low and middle-income countries. Add poverty to the mix, and the result is drivers and pedestrians who are not aware of the basic rules of the road. Bangladesh is one such country.

Billal was an affectionate, 6-year-old Bangladeshi boy, who loved playing all sorts of games with his peers. One fairly normal day, Billal was playing with his friends beside his house, which was adjacent to a busy road in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Billal's maternal uncle and aunt had come to visit him and brought him some bananas, his favorite fruit, with them. They caught a glimpse of Billal's beaming face, playing 'catch' from across the road.

Billal saw them too, with the bananas in their hands. He must have imagined having the bananas in his own hands and chomping them down, one after another. He would have perhaps already tasted the sugar from the bananas melting in his mouth, or he might just have been extremely eager to meet his aunt and uncle, we will never know. Without a second's delay, Billal ran across the street. He didn't see the lorry that was hurtling down the road at a frightening speed. In the blink of an eye, the little boy was thrown to the ground and immediately knocked out of consciousness. Even though Billal's frantic uncle and aunt had been lucky enough to catch the attention of an ambulance with the help of some helpful bystanders, Billal breathed his last en route to the hospital. This and many such similar stories can be found an internal BRAC study report that emphasizes the profound impact of road safety on poverty.

What sets Bangladesh apart is that it is home to one of the largest nonprofits in the world - BRAC. BRAC's work focuses on extending opportunities to the poor. In 2001, BRAC came to the realization that road safety was no different and should be accessible for all segments of society.

BRAC's road safety program is particularly poignant and personal to me, as I myself was in a serious road traffic accident and am still in a wheelchair four years after a vehicle collided with the motorcycle taxi my friend and I were on. Granted that this did not occur in Bangladesh, but in Uganda where the same rules apply.

About two-thirds of poor families who have lost a family member due to road accidents, experience an irrevocable drop in quality of life and become indebted, as 60% take out loans to make up for the lost income. While there is no substitute for having good systems in place, laws that are enforced and good policymakers who unite across party lines to implement policies that are sorely needed by the country, road safety is also dependent on individual behavior and can be learned. Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world and 12% of GDP and 20% of the country's annual development budget is spent on transport. Bangladesh has one the lowest motorization levels in the world - just 2 for 1000 people, compared to 765 for 1000 in USA. However, the fatality rate due to motor vehicle accidents is 60 deaths per 10,000 people (SK Biswas, Road Traffic Injuries: An Emerging Problem in Bangladesh, Faridpur Media 2012) compared to 2 deaths per 10,000 due to motor vehicle accidents in the U.S.

BRAC's road safety program addresses this paradox. It includes educating as many of the Bangladeshi poor as possible about road safety, raising awareness in communities living beside major roads and highways and training commercial vehicle drivers on safe and defensive driving. BRAC's road safety program is an ETP (education, training and publicity) program. It must not be forgotten that ETP goes hand in hand with law enforcement, as it gives people, including offenders, the chance to correct their mistake by enrolling in courses on safe driving. As part of its initiative to combat unsafe roads, BRAC runs many programs under its Driving School, which was launched in 2012 and has 12 driving trainers. The BRAC Driving School is providing poor, divorced or widowed women with opportunity by getting trainers to break Bangladesh's gender norms and train 500 women on how to become professional drivers. This is a challenging task that BRAC has taken on, as Bangladesh is a country often dominated by paternalistic attitudes. BRAC considers this program, known as 'Four Wheels to Freedom,' as a first step to having safer roads in Bangladesh, as men tend to have more risk-prone driving behavior than women (NIH, 2009). Another program, Surakkha, which BRAC is implementing, trains 250,000 bus and truck drivers, from the poorer section of the community, on safe and defensive driving. The program is supposed to go on for a total of five years.

'Supposed to', as BRAC's road safety program no longer has the funds to continue its operations. With your help, we can restart teaching people how they can change their behaviors to make Bangladesh's perilous roads safer.

Given a chance, BRAC could have educated Billal's family about the safety hazards of living so close to the road; it could have made Billal and his family aware that he should never be crossing the road unaccompanied by an adult, and educated and trained the driver to drive safely and informed him about the dangers of driving at speeds at which it is difficult to stop. The government must also play its integral role in making Bangladeshi roads safer by ensuring that inhabited areas are subject to stringent, low speed limits that are enforced, and designing roads with frequent speed bumps that make high speed impossible.

Drivers like the one who hit me and my friend and drivers like the one who hit Billal, have to be made aware of some basic road safety rules, be subjected to stringent enforcement of low speed limits, and restrained from drinking and driving. If such safety standards were followed in Uganda, and if the law required wearing helmets on two wheelers, I would be living a markedly different life today.