Friday, February 18, 2011

Are school buses immune to rules?

School buses are perhaps the worst rashly driven vehicles on road - atleast here in Kerala. Long back, during the days I was taking my driving lessons, I was told by my instructor that School buses always get the benefit of doubt, and hence if they are involved in accident, they are less prone to be prosecuted. I've been driving since September 2004, and have since driven in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The worst school buses that I've seen has been in Kerala - may be the observation gains more strength due to the roads of Kerala - which are at best described as "country roads".

Yesterday's accident, which took the life of 5 little angels (news, here) brings the issue of rash driving to the front. In yet another accident today, a school bus took lives of two people in Ernakulam - the rashly driven school bus hit an auto-rickshaw killing its driver and passenger on the spot. In yesterday's accident, it is claimed that the school van was driven by a 19-year old 'kid'. If my memory serves me right, a driver should have experience of atleast 5 years of driving (i.e., 5 years since issue of license for the particular class of vehicle) to be appointed as a School bus driver. In the case here, the driver might have got his licence just the previous year, or may be the same year!

Police authorities claim that the vehicle was not registered in the name of the school, and the vehicle was not painted yellow (which is the recognised paint scheme for School buses). However, images shown on TV clarify that the van did bear the name of the school, painted on its doors - this clarifies that the vehicle was solely used by the school - whether or not for carrying children. Now, it becomes the responsibility of the school to ensure that only experienced drivers are appointed.

All these raises one question - Are school buses really immune to road rules? Are they free to break rules as they like? It is normal to see them overspeeding on narrow roads, give very little respect to other road users - there has been many instances where they refuse to even move aside to let other vehicles pass on narrow roads. This high-handed behaviour of school bus drivers should certainly be put to an end. Traffic violations by School vehicles to be considered utmost serious, and very strict action should be taken against such drivers - they have no place on the drivers' seat in a School bus.

Traffic rules should be made a part of school education - this is the only way the newer generation can be educated on safe driving. The current lot of drivers (I am sorry to generalise, me too a part of this lot!) have grown up seeing their 'seniors' breaking law at will. Recently, the Kochi Traffic Police had launched a "Lane Traffic System" on Ernakulam bypass. The system was flawed in every step of planning - the system envisaged enforcing a norm where vehicles should not cut lanes without signalling, and overtaking through the left was strictly banned. BUT, the police conveniently forgot one major reason for overtaking through left - what about vehicles that crawl on the right lane? In 90% of the cases of overtaking through the left, the reason is that the vehicle ahead refuses to give way to overtake. In fact, I've noticed that many drivers would try to block anyone trying to overtake them as well - a clear "Indian Crab" attitude!

Coming back to the topic, Its high time the traffic authorities enforce strict restrictions on school buses. These buses should have strict speed restrictions, and school-bus drivers should be given refresher classes at fixed intervals. Attendance at these refresher courses should be made a mandatory requirement for renewal of their licence. A separate class of licence should be introduced for School bus drivers (if that does not exist already), and nobody without such a licence should be allowed to drive school buses (this includes ANY vehicle that carries school children on a regular basis.). Overloading of school buses is another major issue - which continues to go unchecked. At the end, the message should be clear - "School buses are NOT immune to traffic rules. They are more susceptible to them."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A political stunt?

Private Bus Strikes are often an annual "festival" here in Kerala. The reasons for bus strike range from issues as meagre as altercation between passengers and conductor, to major issues like fare hike. A week back, crew of private buses in Kochi city struck work to protest their working condition, and demand a wage hike. The effects of the city bus strike was neutralised by KSRTC, which operated over 180 buses in the city (75 regular Thirukochi services, 60 JnNURM Low Floor buses and 48 extra buses) - thats a small number compared to the 650 Private city buses that were striking work.

Bus owners' association has now announced another indefinite bus strike, from February 17 (tomorrow). This time, their demands (as ever) are: Increase bus fares (already among the highest in the country), increase students' concession fares (the current fares were fixed in 2001!) and reduce KSRTC services (interesting!). But the catch here is that two major district Private bus operators association have already withdrawn support to the strike (Kozhikode and Ernakulam). The Government had appointed a committee to study the problems faced by private bus operators, and the committee is expected to report very soon. Given this, the two district operators feel the bus strike is 'untimely'.

A year back (in January 2010), Private buses kept off the road for 3 consecutive days, which made life really difficult to passengers in the state - given the fact that about 75% of Kerala's public transport is controlled by private buses. This bus strike was dotted by a many public litigation at the Hon. High Court of Kerala. At the end, the government gave in to the private operators' demands. Three days of hardships faced by the passengers left them fuming. The operators' had their demands (not all of them - but one major demand: Fare hike) met - and at the end, the passengers were at the receiving end.

All this brings one question - are these strikes stage managed? How does the government give in to the operators' demands so quickly? If the government is ready to give in, why on earth should passengers be forced to bear these hardships? The next 'episode' of bus strike, to begin tomorrow, is also another drama. The government would only give in to their demands, and raise bus fares to the highest in the country. The current fare is 55 paise per kilometre (subject to minimum of Rs. 4) - and the operators want this to be raised to 65 paise per kilometre (subject to minimum of Rs. 5).

Our neighbour, Tamilnadu, charges 27 paise per kilometre, and their minimum fare is only Rs. 2!! While operators in Tamilnadu agree that the fare is artificially kept low - the corporations have go into the 'other' means of fare hike like operating "deluxe" buses, which charge twice the regular fares, and so on. A newer trend is to arbitrarily increase fares by "naming" services. Point-to-point, and 'bypass rider' services charge higher than regular fares for the faster service they provide.

Given the fact that the state elections are just two months away, the government would try its best to save its skin - and as usual, passengers would be at the receiving end! All I can wish here is, the government takes a tough stance on such operators - there are legal provisions to cancel permits of such operators. But then, that too puts passengers at the receiving end! Its time passengers took a tough stance.