Those risky rides to school

Those risky rides to school

Thousands of young schoolchildren in Bengaluru find their safety compromised as they are crammed into autorickshaws and vans. The Supreme Court guidelines on their safe commute remains only partially fulfilled. 

Twelve young, struggling nursery children sat there crammed inside that autorickshaw. Twisting and turning the rickshaw through the chaotic, congested road, the driver sat blissfully aware that the kids would desperately hang on to their dear lives!

In hundreds of schools across the City, the route to school and back is a tightrope walk for the children. Lugging heavy loads on their back, the young ones have no choice. Isn’t it time the system cracked the whip, stamping out vehicles that violate every guideline in the safety rule book?

Of course, the autorickshaws and the mini vans come cheap. Yes, not many can afford the big vans that come at a high price, beyond the hefty school fees. But that is clearly no excuse to give safety norms the convenient go-by.

Six children norm

So, what are the norms fixed by the city traffic police? Not more than six children in autorickshaws, stick to the 1:1.5 rule. If a van’s permitted capacity is six adults, nine young children could be carried, elaborates Additional Commissioner of Police, Traffic, M A Saleem.

In the second week of July, the traffic police had launched a big drive against overloading autorickshaws. Informs Saleem,“We booked many drivers. We also cautioned parents against compromising their children’s safety to save a few hundred rupees.”

To stem the rising trend of school vehicle accidents, the Supreme Court had issued 14 safety guidelines. The rules were clear that the school buses / vehicles had to be equipped with first aid boxes, speed governors of specified standard, fire extinguishers, horizontal window grills, space for school bags under the seats, qualified drivers and an attendant.

Saleem says in May, he had written letters to all the school principals to strictly implement these guidelines. “We had also called a meeting of all the important schools on May 16, before the institutions reopened after the vacations.”

BMTC: No yellow paint

Compliance has been slow. But a tricky rule that Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) buses hired by schools be painted yellow, has put the institutions, parents and the police in a tight spot.

Here’s why: The State Transport Department recently booked 10 BMTC buses for not following the Supreme Court guideline on the colour. BMTC has made it clear that it cannot do so since the buses also ferry other passengers post school duty.

To break the stalemate, BMTC might have to withdraw its buses from school services. Parents will have to look for other modes of transporting their children. Thus the much-talked about objective of using public transport to take private vehicles off the roads now faces a serious challenge.

Currently, about 280 BMTC buses ferry school children from over 40 schools across the City. They operate twice a day. Besides the colour, BMTC has also termed the need to fix additional window grills impractical.

BMTC Managing Director, Ekroop Caur, however, assures that the corporation is ready to comply with all other guidelines. “We will follow the other guidelines for the safe transportation of school children, but we cannot paint our buses yellow as these are not permanently for ferrying school 0children.”

The Corporation, she says, will take up the matter with the transport department officials to explore whether an exemption could be a possibility. “Otherwise we will have to take the harsh measure of withdrawing all our buses from school services,” she adds.

Preferred transport mode

A majority of parents and even schools without their own transport facilities prefer BMTC buses over private buses / maxicabs. BMTC buses, being State-run, are considered relatively safer. Besides, they also seem financially viable for school managements as well as parents. Incidentally, many prominent schools in the Central Business District also prefer BMTC buses over other private operators.

But private van operators point out a lacunae in depending on buses: Poor last mile connectivity.

“In many houses, both the parents will be working. It is not advised to let children walk home all the way from where the buses stop. Our vans, on the other hand, drop them at their doorsteps,” explains Shanmugam PS, president, Karnataka United School and Light Motor Drivers’ Union.

Yet, some private operators unattached to schools are under a cloud for not adhering to the apex court guidelines on safety.

The traffic police topbrass reiterates that such operators will be penalised. Shanmugam contends that a majority of the van drivers attached to his Union follow the rules. Says he, “No one can compromise on the safety of school children.”

Private operators’ demand

However, there is a tax factor which could be making private operators reluctant to go for additional safety equipment as mandated by the norms.

“Schools pay a lot less tax for their vehicles than us. Annual taxes for school vehicles don’t exceed Rs. 1,600. We have to shell out Rs. 22,000 every year. The government had announced a 50 per cent rebate, but they are yet to implement it,” Shanmugam explains.

Last fortnight, the Bengaluru Urban district administration made it mandatory for all new buses attached to schools and outsourced vehicles to install GPS systems. While all buses registered after July 13 had to install the equipment immediately, older vehicles were given time till October 12. The private operators, all of whom ply vans, say this rule applies only to buses and not them. The Drivers’ Union, which has about 16,000 members and over 25,000 vans attached to it, points out the GPS rule does not figure in the apex court guidelines.

But GPS or no GPS, the thrust on child safety during school commute has put the spotlight back on the Safe Routes to School project. This project was relaunched in May 2013 as a local community-based road safety programme for both government and private schools. The city traffic police, with Saleem at the helm, in partnership with Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and BMTC had given it a push.

The time is now just ripe to give the project another multi-agency push with improved technology. After all, the objective of this project has remained relevant as ever: To reduce the incidence and severity of road crashes involving school children.

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