Islamabad — Usman Arshad, a 22-year-old government employee, was returning home from work on his Honda CD-70 motorcycle. The weather was clear. It was past five o’ clock, and the sun was about to set.
His everyday commute took him through the congested Rawalpindi Stadium Road. Popularly called the ‘double road’, it connects the city’s main artery, the Murree Road, with Islamabad’s Ninth Avenue. The double road is famous as the location of the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium, whose compound was converted into a food street many years ago by the city district administration.
As Mr. Arshad moved past the cricket stadium to reach the Murree Road, a speeding Suzuki Mehran collided head-on with his bike.
“It rushed in front of me,” Mr. Arshad recalled. “It give me no time to react.”
The Mehran driver was on the wrong side of the road, trying to sneak an entry to the food street.
The collision knocked Mr. Arshad off his motorcycle; his body flew over the car and hit the road.
Mr. Arshad’s life was saved because he was wearing a helmet. But he sustained multiple fractures in his legs and shoulder. He was hospitalised for over four months. It took him two more years to recover, he said. He remembers those years as painful and challenging, both physically and psychologically.
Mr. Arshad’s story is just one of among the thousands of traffic accidents that take place on the streets and roads of Rawalpindi each year.
Data compiled by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics shows that 12 people died every day in road accidents in the country between 2012 and 2016. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests there are 14 deaths by traffic accidents per 1,000 people in Pakistan.
Rawalpindi district’s population has increased by more than 60% in 20 years, according to the latest and past census records. Assuming all vehicles registered in the district remained on local roads, data from the district’s excise and taxation department shows there was a more than 300% increase in the number of vehicles in the district between 2015 and 2018.
With more vehicles on the roads, the number of road accidents also appears to have gone up and one type of vehicle seems to feature significantly in these accidents.
Motorbikes, Fast but Deadly
According to the Rawalpindi Excise and Taxation Department, over 425,000 new private and commercial vehicles were registered in the district between 2015 and 2018. Around 87% of these are motorcycles.
On average, more than 92,000 new motorcycles are registered in Rawalpindi district each year.
The data shows an 11% increase in the registration of new bikes in Rawalpindi between 2015 and 2017. During the same time period, road traffic accidents in the district increased by 17%, according to statistics shared by the emergency service Rescue 1122 in response to a Right to Information (RTI) request filed by Media for Transparency.
Analysis with the limited data showed a strong positive correlation between the number of registered bikes and road traffic accidents, and the total number of registered motorcycles could explain the number of road traffic accidents up to 95%.
Motorcycles were involved in most of the accidents that took place in Rawalpindi district between 2016 and 2018.
According to Rescue 1122 data, 56% of the over 35,000 vehicles involved in accidents in the district since 2016 were motorcycles.
Sohail Sabir, an Excise and Taxation Officer (Vehicles) at the department, said previously only a few companies such as Honda and Yamaha sold expensive motorcycles. But that has changed.
“The prices of bikes produced by Chinese companies are really cheap,” Mr. Sabir said.
He said the purchasing power of middle and lower-middle classes has increased over the years and people are buying more bikes with the availability of cheaper models.
“There are companies who are even giving them out in installments,” Mr. Sabir said. “People who were not even thinking of buying a motorbike have started to get the idea.”
Sub-inspector Hammad Shoaib of the Rawalpindi Traffic Police deals with traffic fines and police response to traffic accidents in Rawalpindi. Filing police cases for accidents and adding them to the police blotter are his job.
At his office in the Traffic Police headquarters in Saddar, Mr. Shoaib said bike accidents have become frequent and considerable.
“It has always been like this, accidents do happen, but these (past) few years accidents especially bike accidents have increased dramatically due to increase in population,” he said.
Mubeenur Rasheed, a veteran emergency medical technician who has worked with Rescue 1122 for nine years, agreed with Mr. Shoaib’s assessment.
Mr. Rasheed said there are specific week days and national holidays when the number of motorcycle accidents is at its peak.
“On Independence Day, Eid, Chand Raat and during the election campaign, we see an increase in the number of motorbikes on roads,” he said. “From Faizabad to Zero point and so on, we receive (accident cases of) a lot of bikers and one-wheelers.”
He estimated that on average he responds to 50 accidents in a day. The Rescue 1122 data shows rescue workers responded to 25 road traffic accidents per day between January 2016 and October 2018. Of every 25 accidents, 20 involved motorcyclists.
Better Late than Never
Overspeeding accounts for 60% of the road traffic accidents, according to Rescue 1122 data.
Careless driving is the second biggest culprit. Just over a quarter of the 25,277 accidents in the district between January 2016 and October 2018 resulted from careless driving.
The data also shows that 70% of people involved in accidents received minor injuries but there were more than 5,000 victims who were left with single fractures and more than 2,500 suffered head injuries.
Three in 200 people involved in these traffic accidents were killed.
Eight in 10 of the traffic accident victims were men, and one in every three victims were between 21 to 30 years of age.
Nearly 5,000 pedestrians and around 6,700 passengers were among the 28,413 people who were injured or killed in traffic accidents in the Rawalpindi district from January 2016 to October 2018. The remaining were drivers.
Mr. Shoaib, the traffic police sub-inspector, said most of the car-to-car accidents go unreported because there is no injury or fatality and both parties patch things up themselves. But it is different for bike accidents.
“When a car is involved in an accident, it’s the car that receives the damage first but in case of a bike accident it is the driver that is first in the harm’s way.” he said.
Mr. Rasheed said bike riders tend to hurry and overspeed because of which they take wrong turns and break signals. In these scenarios, he said, either they get hit by cars and then slip or just slip on their own. If the motorcyclist is not wearing a helmet, the chance of fatality increases, he said.
The WHO global status report on road safety 2015 stated that “most motorcycle deaths are a result of head injuries”. The report indicated that wearing a helmet properly reduces the risk of death by 40% and results in a 70% reduction to the risk of severe injury.
Despite the clear advantages of helmets, the report states that only 44 countries have a good helmet law. Pakistan is among the countries that do not have a national motorcycle helmet law.
Heading Towards Fatalities
The Traffic Police also believe that refusal of riders to wear protective gear is a problem and challenge for the department.
Giving examples of helmet-related accidents, Mr. Shoaib shared that two bikers died in an incident when they hit a car in the back while it was taking a turn. They were not wearing head protection, he said.
Similarly, in another incident in Taxila, a sub-division of the Rawalpindi district, a bike hit a van in the middle. Both the bike riders died because they were not wearing helmets.
“It was indeed the fault of the van in that particular case, but in my opinion in accidents like these 50% of the fault lies with the bikers who don’t wear helmets,” Mr. Shoaib said.
Mr. Rasheed the lack of protective headgear and appropriate footwear leads to risk of injuries.
“First of all bike riders don’t use helmets and secondly they don’t wear the right shoes,” Mr. Rasheed said. “First thing that happens when you are hit, either your foot gets injured or your head.”
He said motorcyclists need to wear strong and durable helmets to protect from injuries. Riding a motorcycle while wearing a sandal or chappal is a major reason for foot fractures, he said.
Mr. Shoaib said some people feel genuinely embarrassed and regretful when they are fined for not wearing helmets but other react in a difficult and rigid manner.
“The attitude is usually like ‘OK, you fined me two hundred rupees today! Fine, you can do it again tomorrow because I am still not going to wear the helmet’,” he said.
Traffic fines range from Rs. 600 to Rs. 1,000. Mr. Shoaib called the fines a “deterrent” but accepted that the fines have not brought about a big change in the attitudes of motorists. He said part of the reason is that there are no traffic laws but only traffic rules that are to be followed.
He also pointed out that as a last resort, riders buy cheap plastic helmets. He said they have witnessed people dying as a result of a head injury while wearing these plastic helmets.
“We used money from our own pockets to give free helmets to bikers,” he said, while showing Media for Transparency photos of traffic police officers distributing helmets among motorcyclists.
Helmets are not the only concern.
Low-quality motorcycles also pose a risk to road safety.
“The number of bikes on the roads needs to be controlled,” Mr. Shoaib said. “This is making major issues for environmental pollution as well as causing traffic accidents.”
When asked about controlling the number of motorbikes in the city, Mr. Sabir, the taxation officer, said the decision is not up to the Excise and Taxation department. He said that their department would like more registrations to take place as it will increase their revenue.
Mr. Sabir said it was not the responsibility of his department to stop the registration of sub-standard motorcycles.
“The companies come to the Secretary Excise with certificates from the Pakistan Quality Association and Engineering Development Board, after which they are awarded the licenses,” he said.
He said these certification bodies should raise the standard for certification if substandard vehicles are to be kept off the roads.
Mr. Shoaib said he has noticed a consistent pattern when it comes to motorbike accidents.
He said these accidents occur due to inexperienced or underage drivers that don’t have licenses. The bikes usually do not possess number plates and drivers do not wear helmets, he said.
To prove his point, the traffic police inspector recounted examples from recent accidents.
He said a few days ago two bike drivers died because of a head-on collision on the Chakwal-Jehlum road. Both motorcycles did not have number plates, both the drivers were underage, and both of them were not wearing helmets.
Muhammad Farooq Butt, another representative of Rescue 1122, backed up Mr. Shoaib’s theory of underage driving leading to road traffic accidents.
“A 16-year-old boy does not know how to drive a motorbike he has not learned how to drive,” said Mr. Farooq. “He learns from seeing other people; they over speed, they race, and they don’t wear helmets. This is why when we see road accidents young people are involved.”
According to Rescue 1122 data, 1,571 underage drivers – or 9% of all drivers involved – were affected in road traffic accidents during a three-year period.
Another issue associated with youth and vehicles is one-wheeling.
According to the Provincial Motor Vehicle Ordinance section 99-A, one-wheeling is a punishable crime and a police case is registered against the violators. According to the traffic police, 34 cases were registered for this offence in the month of Ramzan in 2018.
Sub-inspector Shoaib said there is a perception that these one-wheelers are kids trying to have fun but the reality is they have formed gangs. There is a large amount of money at stake during these stunts, he said.
Catching them is not an easy feat, Mr. Shoaib said. He narrated how last year an officer was shot when he tried to pursue and arrest two one-wheelers. The offenders were caught later but recently recently got released on bail.
“Catching the ‘wheelers’ is also risky,” he said. “The police officers have to dress in civilian clothing and ride on commercial motorbikes to catch them.”
If during the chase the wheelers get hurt, it is the police that gets blamed, he said.
In September 2018, Lahore High Court’s Justice Ali Akber Qureshi gave a ruling to impose a ban on underage driving. The judge also ordered that parents of children who are found violating the law will be jailed.
Before the order was passed, Mr. Shoaib said, they would fine a youth for underage driving but a week or two catch him the act again.
Following the court orders, the Traffic Police said apprehended underage drivers are only to be released after their parents submit an affidavit declaring they will not allow their children to drive a vehicle. Otherwise a police case will be lodged against the parents.
“We also take their pictures,” Mr. Shoaib said. “It has worked.”