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Transport / Mass transit

In the Pakistani city of Peshawar, commuters risk their lives travelling on over-crowded buses each day

Traffic accidents are a leading cause of death all over the world. In the city of Peshawar, in north eastern Pakistan, many hundreds of people die, and thousands more sustain injuries, in traffic-related accidents every single year.

There is no single explanation for these horrifying statistics. Poorly implemented traffic regulations are one factor; so is the lukewarm attitude of the populations of the quarters concerned. Corruption in the relevant municipal departments, regarding speed limits and the condition of roads is a major contributor, too.

But one of the biggest factors is surely the attitude of the companies that provide so much of the city’s public transport. Traffic laws exist in the provincial capital, but companies often ignore them, and overload their buses and other vehicles with far too many passengers, just to make money.

Passengers, especially younger ones, also choose to take their lives in their hands, simply to save money. “Students sit on the rooftops of public transport, in order to avoid giving fares to the conductors,” Mazhar Ali Khalil, a local driver, told me. He added that, if the bus staff force them to get down again, “they hold protests against [the companies], and smash the windowpanes of the vehicles.”

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Ibrar Afridi, a student at the Government Degree College Peshawar, blamed the rooftop travelling on the “rush and the shortage of adequate public transport”. Students have limited money, he pointed out, and many belong to down-trodden and poorer segments of society. In other words, rooftop travel is better than no travel.

Hang on tight. Image: Mahwish Qayyum.

Yet they are still jeopardising their lives. Some rooftop travellers have been electrocuted after being hit by live electricity wires; others have been crushed to death after falling. Nor is this the only risky behaviour. Other passengers travel hanging out from the doors of the crowded buses, or clinging to the fences of the carriages.

In its Global Status Report on Road Safety 2015, World Health Organization described traffic accidents as “the leading cause of death among young people globally”. Road traffic injuries are the number one cause of death among those aged 15-29, it said – and “most of these deaths are in low-and-middle-income countries”.

In Peshawar, in 2013, the Rescue 1122 emergency service line received reports of 1,666 road traffic accidents, in which 20 passengers died and 800 were injured. The following year, spokesman Bilal Ahmad Faizi told me, the number of accidents jumped to 2,333, in which 24 died and 1,000 were injured.

Those, though, are only the figures reported to the emergency services – and they are almost certainly an under-estimate. Traffic police department statistics showed, in 2013, 352 people lost their lives and 524 sustained injuries. Last year, those figures had jumped to 402 and 648 respectively. Things are bad, and they are getting worse.

Rasheed Khan is an assistant sub inspector in the traffic department’s Rapid Response Squad. He told me that his department has “launched an awareness campaign against perils of overloading. Strict action will be taken against those found doing overloading”.

In practice, that means a fine of Rs 200 (£1.30) for those drivers responsible for the overloading. For repeated offenders, the fine would rise to Rs 600.

So, there will be fines. And there will be banners, too, visible from the city’s main thoroughfares, and warning of the hazards of overloading. Today, though, jam-packed passengers vehicles continue to ply the roads, putting thousands of lives at risk.

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