The message 'Better late than never' despite being prominently displayed on signboards along the national and state highways is rarely followed by drivers, particularly those driving buses, as they try to outdo one another.
This precisely is the scene one witnesses on the 110-km Pathankot-Amritsar stretch and the 70-km stretch from Amritsar-Tarn Taran-Harike-Makhu-Zira of the 338-km NH-15 up to Abohar. These two stretches are perhaps the most dreadful driving zones in Punjab, on which many a precious life has been lost due to reckless and irresponsible driving, particularly by those driving private buses or minibuses.
The blink of an eye by the man behind the wheel in a car or jeep can lead to a head-on collision with a bus or truck. The entire families have been wiped out on these two stretches.
At the start of the journey, bus drivers seek divine guidance, muttering a small prayer and concluding it with the words, 'Waheguru mehar bhareya haath rakhe' (Oh god, please guide us on our journey). As buses pick up speed, it becomes the turn of the passengers to turn to 'Waheguru' for reaching their destinations safely.
These private bus drivers are fearless, as they know that the owners of the buses will come to their rescue if a police case is registered against them. This is because most of the buses operating between Pathankot-Amritsar and from Amritsar-Tarn Taran-Zira belong to politicians or to those well connected.
While 60% of all road accidents on these two stretches could be attributed to reckless driving by private buses, the other factors leading to mishaps are loaded trucks and the large trawlers moving from Jammu to Kandla port in Gujarat or in the reverse direction. While during the day, these goods carriers remain parked outside dhabas or along the roadside, these rule the highway at night.
Loaded tractor-trolleys, especially during the sugarcane-crushing season, also account for 10%of the mishaps. Cars, SUVs and two-wheelers also account for 10% of all road mishaps on the two stretches and a majority of these occur during the winters when visibility is low due to fog and also due to marriages that take place in this season in marriage palaces where liquor is served.
This 110-km stretch of the national highway perhaps has the highest density of private buses in Punjab. Figures obtained from Batala reveal that a bus leaves the bus stand of this industrial town every three minutes for Amritsar and every five minutes towards Pathankot.
The number of vehicles are quite high as this highway moves up to Jammu and then to Srinagar. The traffic to and from Himachal Pradesh towns also adds to the chaos.
Pilgrim casualties on this highway come next only to those recorded on the Kharar-Rupnagar-Nangal highway that caters to devotees heading for Chintpurni and other towns of religious importance in Himachal Pradesh. Tourist buses or vans and even private cars/jeeps loaded with pilgrims coming from Vaishno Devi and heading towards Amritsar are a common sight. The cause behind pilgrim casualties is normally lack of sleep by drivers of tourist buses or vans as they often travel all through the night with little or no rest for the driver.
If the time interval between two private buses is three to five minutes, it becomes a cat and mouse race. Drivers try to outdo each other in a bid to pick up the maximum number of passengers. The private operators, with more stoppages, pick up more passengers than the government buses, which despite being non-stop seem too sluggish for the liking of most passengers, who are willing to risk their lives in an attempt to reach their destinations in the least possible time.
The overloaded trucks and trawlers, some of which carry sand and gravel and move at a slow pace, often become objects of annoyance for the fast-moving buses and other vehicles. In a bid to overtake these vehicles, buses or cars often collide with the vehicles coming from the opposite direction.
Hopefully, the accident rate will fall after the completion of the four-laning of this stretch which is currently underway. Though certain stretches of the highway have been four-laned, this often leads to confusion and causes mishaps when a vehicle moves from a double lane to the single-lane portion or vice-versa.
This stretch passes through thickly populated towns of Batala, Gurdaspur, Dinanagar, Dhariwal and Verka. Schools and marriage palaces exist on both sides of the highway and a reckless crosser may get crushed by a speeding vehicle. Encroachments along the highway in these towns may not cause any major mishap but these often lead to traffic jams and one vehicle banging against another at slow speed.
15-km stretch from Ghasitpura village to Udowali village, which is close to the Batala sugar mill
20-km stretch from Jaintipur to Verka (In a recent accident, seven people lost their lives at Jethuwal on October 29)
Other points include stretches near Dhariwal up to Sohal village, stretch near Dinanagar and near Naushera Majha Singh
(From January 2012 to October 23, 2013)
Total cases registered under sections 304-A, 279, 337, 338 of the IPC) - 284
Deaths reported - 220
Injured - 246
Drunken driving not major cause
With around 34 liquor vends on this highway, including the ones in Batala, Verka, Gurdaspur and Dhariwal towns, the accident rate due to drunken driving is not alarming.
Police maintain that accidents due to drunken driving normally occur during the marriage season from November to mid-March. These involve members of marriage parties. Bus drivers are rarely found to be under the influence of liquor on this highway while on duty. In fact, drunken driving is more common on the roads leading to smaller towns of the area from the district and sub-divisional headquarters.
The major cause listed by the police is reckless driving and over-speeding, especially by drivers of private buses. Though there are seven highway patrol parties policing the area, they are not equipped with alcometers to check drunken driving. However, along with Ambulance 108, these police vehicles help transport accident victims to the nearest hospitals. Highway patrol should have first aid equipment with cops being trained to handle minor injuries.
Case of accident victim
Chand Arora of Dinanagar lost his brother Ranjan Arora a couple of years back following a road mishap. Their father also died soon after as he could not bear the loss of one of his sons.
"We were a happy joint family until this tragedy happened. Now I have taken upon myself the responsibility of looking after my brother's family along with that of my own. Initially our business suffered but gradually the entire family got together and worked hard to bring about a change for the better," Chand Arora said.
Amritsar-Tarn Taran-Zira stretch
The 70-km stretch is another hazard-prone zone, mainly due to the reason that the highway is a single lane and cannot handle the volume of traffic which has increased over the years. The increase in traffic took place after the decade-long period of terrorism, when few ventured out after dusk on this highway.
Over-speeding could be a reason for the high number of accidents but the police also put the blame on the lack of proper highway infrastructure. The bridges at many points along the highway are narrow, with space for just two vehicles. A cyclist or a scooter rider often finds himself in trouble when he tries to squeeze through the buses and cars on these narrow bridges.
Accidents attributed to liquor are also quite prominent on the highway, especially during the marriage season in the winters. The 40-km stretch from the outskirts of Amritsar to Harike bridge is lined with marriage palaces from where emerge the tipsy 'baraatis' in their SUVs which they drive home at top speed and often land up in hospital.
The cops at Thatian Mahanta first aid post say accidents are quite common where link routes meet the highway. Drivers often come onto the highway from the link road driving at high speed and smash their vehicles into a high speeding bus or an SUV.
The dozen-odd narrow bridges on the highway between Tarn Taran and Harike
10-km zone between Thatian Mahanta and Harike
Chola Sahib chowk at Sarhali
Between Golwar and Tarn Taran
Jan 2012 - Dec 2012
Accidents - 113
Deaths - 98
Injured - 134
Jan 2013 - Oct 15, 2013
Accidents - 102
Deaths - 91
Injured - 69
There are just three highway patrol vehicles in the Tarn Taran area and another between Makhu and Zira. These vehicles are used for transporting the injured to the nearest hospitals. However, in a majority of the cases, the 108 Ambulances come in handy.
There are 11 liquor vends between Amritsar and Harike located along the highway. Another seven are located between Harike and Zira.
Case of accident-affected family
Vivek Aggarwal, a businessman of Tarn Taran town, lost his parents and paternal uncle and aunt on December 13, 2010. They were returning in their car from Delhi when a truck coming from the opposite direction fell on the car killing the four family members. The family till date has got no compensation.
Life changed for Vivek and the entire family thereafter. "Out authorised Maruti service centre had to be shut down and later we also shut down the rice sheller. My cousin Rahmat and I could not cope with the family business. We carried on with our commission agent business. Rahmat had to find a job.
In the absence of adequate medical facilities in Batala, Pathankot, Dhariwal, Gurdaspur, Tarn Taran and Zira towns, all seriously injured cases are referred to Guru Nanak Dev Hospital or other private hospitals of Amritsar.
In Tarn Taran, there is a 100-bed hospital but it can handle cases which are not of a serious nature. According to senior medical officer Dr Shamsher Singh, victims with head injuries and multiple fractures are sent to Amritsar. The hospital has only one ortho surgeon and requires another two to handle accident cases. Certain state-of-the-art medical equipment is also needed at the hospital to handle poly-trauma cases.
Eyewitness account by HT
On June 22 this year, an HT correspondent, along with the photographer, was heading towards Pathankot to cover the rally of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
About 10 km from Dinanagar, a private bus at high speed passed by and cut across the lane into the wrong lane in a bid to overtake another private bus.
The bus hit a motorcycle rider coming from the Dinanagar side. The motorcyclist lost control and fell only to be crushed by a trawler, which was moving at slow speed. The motorcyclist died on the spot but the bus driver picked up speed and headed towards Dinanagar. The HT team in a car tried their best to catch up. Ultimately at Dinanagar, the bus stopped for picking up passengers and the HT team confronted the driver.
The driver refused to accept the blame for the death of the motorcyclist and blamed the trawler driver. Before the cops could be summoned, the driver abandoned the bus and was lost in the crowd. Later, it was revealed that the bus stayed in the police station for two days and was then let off as it belonged to an influential person. The cops did register a case but the driver was never arrested on charges of reckless driving.
A transporter speaks
Jasbir Singh Dimpa, a transporter and a political leader, whose family's Piar Bus Service is one of the oldest private bus services in the Majha belt, said, "Though a driver can be blamed for being responsible for mishaps caused due to over-speeding, I put the blame more on the law-enforcing authorities who have failed to implement traffic norms so as strike a fear in the vehicle drivers.
The authorities have no equipment to check over-speeding on the important highway where the volume of traffic is very high. Unless the drivers are hauled up before the law, the authorities can never hope to check over speeding or other offences. The system of granting driving licences is faulty as there is no written or practical test."
Dimpa, whose buses have never been involved in a major road mishap, said, "We have a tie-up with Tata Motors and the makers of Leyland chassis and engines for training our drivers. We have given a rules hand book to each driver and conductor on the dos and don'ts."
(With inputs from Vinay Dhingra in Pathankot)