Perils of long distance travel

Perils of long distance travel

IT professional Kavitha Sreedharan still dreads taking the Volvo bus to Ooty. A traumatic night trip to the hill station from Bangalore had triggered in her a fear of long distance travel.

The sparks from the wheels that hit the long-winding road at high speed had caught her attention. She had to warn the driver to go slow right there, right away. For, she definitely didn’t want another devastating fire on the move.

Staying alert through the night, Kavitha eventually ensured a safe journey for herself and her young children. But lakhs of commuters, travelling several hundred miles on air-conditioned coaches from Bangalore couldn’t be so sure. They knew they weren’t hundred per cent certain of their safey if a fire broke out within. They had no choice, but trust the bus operators, private or government-owned, and the railways to keep all precautionary equipment against fire in ship shape.

His eyes set on the 11 pm bus set to arrive soon at the KSRTC’s Shanthinagar station, veteran violinist Rajeeva Lochana had heard of the recent fires that killed dozens of commuters. But he didn’t want to compromise on comfort. “There is no doubt that the Volvo’s are comfortable. Yet, if the maintenance aspects are not taken care of diligently, travel could get risky. Carelessness could prove dangerous to many people.”

The fire accidents had shaken up all operators, both KSRTC and the private transport companies. On its part, the KSRTC Volvo depot in Shantinagar has installed additional emergency exits on all but 50 of its fleet of 300 Volvo buses. As Ganganna Gowda, an official incharge of the depot informs, the remaining buses would be fitted with the new doors soon.

Besides, hammers have been provided in all buses to break open the toughened glass windows in case of a fire. “We have also started displaying a two-minute video inside the bus, showing what emergency facilities are available and how to use them. This information is also made available in a card given to all passengers,” explains Gowda. Also added are more fire extinguishers, two in the case of multi-axle buses.

But the number of fire extinguishers should be three to four, considering the size of the Volvo bus, feels Nadaf, a retired transport corporation official. Commuter Kavitha Sreedharan echoes this point, when she seeks more fire-fighting machines that are easily accessible. “These extinguishers should also work, and not be like the first aid boxes. I do see the kits but am not sure whether there is anything in them,” she says. Hammers too had to be visible, and easily accessible.

In most of the accidents, it was clearly established that high speeds created conditions for the initial spark of fire. But KSRTC bus drivers contend that overspeeding is a trait of private buses since the State Transport Volvo speeds are locked at about 90 to 95 kmph. As proof, they point to the rashly driven private Volvos overtaking KSRTC buses on most highways.

Speed alarms

Sreedharan suggests a speed alarm for both drivers and passengers. She explains, “The alarm could be mild, but loud enough to alert passengers about the perils of overspeeding. They could then demand that the driver slow down for their own safety.” Incidentally, in the recent fire accidents, most passengers were fast asleep when smoke and fire engulfed the bus, trapping them completely.

This, combined with another critical suggestion by Nadal for a software to alert the driver of a fire near the engine, could prove decisive in boosting fire safety. Explains Nadal, “The software has already been developed in Sweden. The driver is alerted by a beeping red light, which will help him immediately halt the bus and extinguish the flames. When a Volvo bus costs Rs. 80 lakh, KSRTC could invest a bit more on installing the software.”

This could prove beneficial, especially when the possibility of the fire spreading to the engine at the rear end of the bus is too big. Here’s why: Since the engine, hot exhaust pipes and silencers are at the back side, diesel from a leaking tank can quickly get on to the red hot exhaust pipes, triggering a fire. This is one reason why experts suggest that the diesel pipes within the engine should be checked daily. To avoid friction and consequent leakages, they also recommend that the diesel tanks be placed at a higher level from the ground.

Positioning emergency exits

While emergency exits could add more escape routes for trapped passengers, the experts stress on the position of these doors. “The doors should be on the right side of the bus, located in the central portion which is at a lower level. The rear seating position inside the Volvos are at heights of 3 to 4 ft above ground level. Trapped passengers cannot freely jump off the bus from that height. There is also scope for one more door on the left side of the bus,” suggests Nadal.

For Rakesh Kumar, a private company manager and frequent traveller between Bangalore and Tiruppur, these safety features would definitely make commuting smoother. The recent fire accidents were too shocking to be forgotten, and he wanted KSRTC and other private operators to keep improving the fire safety standards. He could have opted for the railways till he was reassured of more safety on the road. “Train, despite the recent AC coach fire mishap, is safer. But getting a confirmed ticket is so tough that I keep coming back to the bus,” says Kumar.

The Carlton Towers fire accident a few years ago in the City had shown Sheema Tangam the tragic consequence of poor safety standards. That incident and the recent spate of bus and train fire mishaps had made Tangam wary about alighting long distance buses without a doublecheck. “The signages for emergency exit doors, fire extinguishers, hammers and other safety equipment should be legible and prominent. Even an illiterate person should be able to understand them and access them, “she points out.  

Caution, and not fear, is the overwhelming thought in most passengers’ minds as they board an air-conditioned bus. While they want the bus operators and manufacturers to ensure that there is no compromise on safety features, they seek greater responsibility from the drivers. For, as Sreedharan reminds, the passengers’ lives are in the hands of these drivers. Their alertness, discretion, speed control and presence of mind could make all the difference for the teeming millions who take to the roads every day and night.

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