How many deaths before dismissal?

The Bangalore Metropolitan Transportation Corporation has for years allowed hundreds of drivers to get back behind the wheel after causing bus accidents that killed pedestrians, cyclists—and in some cases their own passengers, an IIJNM investigation has found.

Watch the story here.

 

Records and interviews show the massive agency fires a small percentage of the drivers it concludes were fully “at fault” for the fatal wrecks. Most are put back to work, in some cases with punishments no greater than if they had been involved in fender benders.

And in a number of cases, the pattern of leniency backfired: drivers given a second chance went on to have at least one more fatal accident before they were terminated.

The findings of the IIJNM study, which reviewed hundreds of internal documents obtained through the 2005 Right To Information Act, are at odds with the agency’s public image as one of the most efficient and safest urban bus systems in India.

Pic courtesy: IIJNM

BMTC officials are quick to boast about the “gold medals” the agency has won from the Transportation Ministry for clocking the fewest number of accidents per kilometer. Promising “our goal is your safety,” the agency touts its driver training, yoga sessions, relaxation classes, mechanical upgrades and alcohol “de-addiction” classes it offers its corps of 15,000 drivers and trainees. It is also ordering a sophisticated driving simulator to test recruits.

Meanwhile, it promises tough measures against reckless drivers. After a flurry of deadly collisions late last year, a BMTC spokesman assured the public that the agency was weeding out those responsible.

“In cases where we find our driver is totally responsible for the accident, normally we remove [him] from the services,” K. Vijayakumar Rai, Deputy Chief Labour and Welfare Officer, said at the time. “We don’t tolerate indiscipline in BMTC.”

The IIJNM investigation showed otherwise.

The review looked at hundreds of driver histories and nine years’ worth of logbooks tracking all accidents, as well as the conclusions of internal investigations that assigned fault and handed out punishments. Student journalists also interviewed bus drivers involved in fatal wrecks, families of victims, BMTC officials and traffic safety experts.

Revelations

The probe found:

  • Of 500 fatal accidents since 2000, BMTC drivers were judged “at fault” in 367—or 73 per cent of the cases. For many of the drivers, the fatal crashes were not isolated incidents but part of a pattern that included major and minor accidents as well.
  • BMTC dismissed or removed from service 35 of the 317 drivers responsible for those accidents—or 11 per cent. The rest were put back to work after their pay was docked, forfeited future raises or had their training periods extended. In 11 per cent of the cases, drivers received verbal reprimands.
  • In 28 cases, drivers who returned to work went on to have a second, even a third deadly accident before being fired.
  • While BMTC accidents-per-kilometer are stable, the absolute number is edging up. And the financial fallout is costing the agency about twice what is generally known.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of a deadly boomerang was the case of K Abdul Ghafoor, records show (click here to see Ghafoor’s record).

A driver for just over a year, he caused his first fatal accident on 16th September, 2007. Sent back to work, he logged his second deadly crash exactly a month later—16th October—before he was purged from the driver rolls.

Top BMTC officials strongly defend their treatment of killer drivers, saying it would be unfair and even inhumane to fire someone for a fatal slip if he otherwise has a good record. Their feelings were echoed by spokespersons for public bus systems in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, who follow the same general policies.

Official response

K S Vishwanath, Chief Traffic Officer for Operations, called the IIJNM findings “bullshit” and said bus drivers face intense mental stress dealing with the chaotic mix of traffic on Bangalore’s broken and overcrowded streets. He said drivers should only be let go if they have three accidents within five to ten years, or log fatals in combination with other factors such as bad behavior and absenteeism.

“You explain to me: do all the murderers get a death sentence from the court?” he said. “No, right? Some of them get life imprisonment. Likewise, how do you expect us to fire all the drivers who are involved in fatal accidents?”

G G Hegde, manager of Human Resources Development, added that it would send a wrong message to the BMTC workforce if drivers were fired for their first fatal accident.

“Firing is not the solution,” said Hegde. “If the employees get a feeling that we’ll just fire them, then nobody will take this job.”

Contacted by IIJNM, bus drivers with fatal accidents acknowledge they often drive recklessly, but blame it on outdated time schedules drawn up long before Bangalore became a traffic nightmare.

Expert’s opinion

Karnataka’s leading traffic expert, M N Sreehari, agreed that the schedule times haven’t been overhauled scientifically for years, resulting in horrifying conditions for drivers. Still, shown the numbers from the IIJNM review, he expressed shock that BMTC wasn’t firing more drivers who caused deadly collisions.

“The common man, the outsider, doesn’t know about this,” said Sreehari, a Ph.D. in engineering and advisor to the Government of Karnataka, including the BMTC. He said the number of drivers terminated should be closer to 75 per cent.

“Are you going to keep them [at-fault drivers] on to kill other people?”

By many measures, BMTC is the gold standard of urban bus service in India.

While public bus systems in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Ahmedabad bleed red ink, BMTC has stockpiled a surplus of more than Rs. 360 crore during the last two fiscal years for which statistics are available, 2006-2007 and 2007-2008.

Each day, 4,900 of its blue-and-white Ashok Leyland or sleek red Volvo “Vajra” buses rumble through the city and suburbs, carrying the equivalent of half the population over enough kilometers to reach the moon and back, with more than enough to spare.

The vast majority of the system’s 15,000 permanent and trainee drivers do their jobs without calamity. But as BMTC adds routes, and deploys hundreds more buses a year, the number of collisions is rising. For the first time ever, the tally of deadly bus accidents reached into the triple digits, to 109, during 2007-2008 (see graph).

Each life taken by a BMTC bus leads to criminal charges against the driver and a civil lawsuit against the agency. The average damage award is Rs. 4.8 lakhs, the study found.

Suffering

Then there’s the human suffering.

Rafad Banu ticks off the numbing chronology of 29th December, 2006, when a BMTC bus bound for City Market collided with her 17-year-old son, Mohammad Zeeshan, as he was riding his bicycle to work.

“He went out at 8:45 AM. I got the news at 9:05 AM. At 12:30 PM we got the body and the service started at around 1 PM. Then, they took him away.”

As a gesture of “immediate solace,” BMTC representatives approach grieving relatives like Banu with Rs. 15,000 to defray ambulance bills and funeral costs.

Most survivors, who are generally poor, take the money, say agency officials. Others refuse it, figuring it might be used against them in a subsequent civil lawsuit.

Deceased Arundhati’s father is angry upon BMTC for its indifference.

The family of Arundhati—a middle-class teacher killed by a passing bus at the Rajajinagar stop in April 2008—rejected the offer when a BMTC representative showed up at the hospital with the cash, right after the post-mortem.Pic courtesy: IIJNM

R.M Viparthy, Arundhati’s father, is still angry, not about the spurned payment but because he never heard from BMTC again.

“They have not even bothered to telephone us, to contact us, or meet us, to express they’re sorry and their sympathy—nothing,” he said, on the anniversary of the accident. “It is something that means they’re most insensitive.”

Drivers as well complain they feel shunted aside by the agency in the aftermath of a fatal accidents, which often attract mobs that throw stones or set buses on fire.

“People came and caused chaos,” said H N Kumar, the driver who ran over Arundhati. “I was beaten up badly by the public and then I escaped and went to the police station…. I had to spend around Rs. 15,000 and Rs. 20,000 for my bail.”

A tale of two tragedies: Suffering on both sides of the windshield

As a policy, BMTC gives drivers an ex-gratia payment, too, for a criminal attorney but otherwise leaves them on their own.

Trial procedure

Meanwhile, the agency launches its own probe. The central accident unit rushes to the scene to take measurements and photos examining the position of the body and signs of impact on the vehicle. This sets in motion an internal enquiry, overseen by a retired judge, to determine responsibility. A driver is found either “not at fault;” “also at fault” if he shares responsibility; or “at fault” if he is deemed fully responsible.

Those conclusions, along with proscribed punishments, are recorded by hand in a series of ledger books.

IIJNM reviewed notations for 500 fatal accidents over the last nine years; the number represents the majority of deadly crashes but not all, since many entries were incomplete.

The review showed that in more than 70 per cent of the 500 fatalities, BMTC drivers were judged “at fault”- a designation that various officials confirmed meant fully responsible. This was far greater than what a top BMTC official claimed in a presentation in late January, where he reported the rate to be 10 to 30 per cent.

Habitual crashes

The IIJNM study also showed that, contrary to assertions by Chief of Traffic Operations Vishwanath, fatal crashes are not isolated events for drivers. They are usually part of more problematic safety records that typically include major injury accidents and minor property damage mishaps.

Example: Shiva Kumar, who was held “at fault” for an April 2006 smash-up that claimed two lives and injured one. The incident has cost his employer Rs. 5.3 lakhs in court awards, with one lawsuit pending. It was his third fatal and eighth accident since 1999; he was at fault for all but one of them. (Click here to see Shiva Kumar’s driving record)

Kumar was dismissed, one of 35 drivers to be fired for causing fatal accidents since 2000.

That is 11 per cent of all drivers fully responsible.

Penalty

The rest were returned to work after serving suspensions, ranging from days to up to six months, at half-pay. About half of the returning drivers were further penalised with one-time fines, cuts in their basic salary or being forced to forfeit raises—measures classified in BMTC’s Conduct and Discipline Regulations as “minor penalties.” BMTC drivers earn an average of Rs. 2,500 a month.

Another 25 per cent in the study were trainees who had their driving probation period extended for up to one year. Some 14 per cent, or 45 drivers, faced “censure” or verbal reprimands, the second lightest penalty in the rulebook.

In many of the cases, the punishments were no greater than for minor property damage accidents, also recorded in the daily logs.

Driver K Jagadesh received such dispensation after causing two deadly wrecks, records show. After his first accident, in March 1999, he was docked one month’s wages, taken over 10 installments to soften the blow. For his second accident, in July 2001, he received a censure.

“Warned to be careful in the future,” the hand-written entry said.

External influence

Sreehari, the Karnataka traffic expert, blamed political influence for the cumulative leniency. He said drivers often get members of the ruling party, the opposition, MLAs and even the political appointees to the BMTC board to intercede.

“I know there’s interference from politicians to keep them in the job,” said Sreehari, who declined to give details.

When asked if this were correct, Vishwanath terminated the interview with IIJNM.

S Manohar, Chief Law Officer, said he was unaware of any instances in which politicians intervened to put drivers back to work.

BMTC officials claim they have to take back drivers because they are acquitted in their criminal trials.

“A driver gets dismissed from the service after he is found ‘at fault,’ the court exonerates him from the charges, then we have to take him back,” said P.S. Sandhu, Director of Security, Vigilance and Environment.

“We take the drivers back only when the court directs us.”

But records show that only 10 “at fault” drivers were later exonerated in court.

“A driver is held responsible for the accident almost every time they go to court,” said Manohar, the Chief Law Officer. “It is very rare that they are acquitted in a court of law.”

Outdated schedule

BMTC drivers and depot managers blamed the time schedules they must follow for the rising number of accidents.

Shivappa, traffic controller of the Kengeri Depot, said the current timings were devised in 1983, before surveys show Bangalore traffic exploded by 600%. As an example, he pointed to a printed schedule that gave 90 minutes for a bus to make the route from Bidadi to K R Market on Mysore Road, a route of about 31 kilometres.

“It is really impossible with all the traffic to complete the trip within this time,” he said. “This has to change.”

“It is of my opinion that drivers are committing accidents only because of the time factor,” he added. “What these drivers do is that when they become conscious of the time, they overtake vehicles, drive rashly and they will end up in an accident.”

Vishwanath, the Chief Traffic Officer, said he adjusted routes six months ago, making it easier for drivers to meet their time targets by reducing stops and trimming a cumulative 30,000 kilometres.

Costly affair

Whatever the cause, the rising tide of all accidents is costing BMTC more than what most people know. In its annual report, the agency presents charts showing that it has lost 80 per cent of its accident-related court cases and paid more than Rs. 12 crores in judgments. (See graph)

Worried about the fiscal implications, agency stopped insuring itself in 2006 and assumed an outside policy to help whittle away at the awards in court, said Manohar. That policy with the United India Insurance Corporation costs BMTC an additional Rs. 8 crores a year, an expense not reflected in the charts.

Human angle

Still, the financial consequences of fatal accidents is not enough to take a harder line against the responsible drivers, Manohar maintained.

“If we fire them, then we are firing an entire family,” he said. “This is a humanitarian consideration. I agree that the victims, too, have a family. So we have to balance things.”

Rafad Banu, who lost her 17-year-old son, said there is no way to balance, much less make up, for her loss.

The driver, B J Nataraju, was found “at fault” and put back to work on an extended training period. Banu, who lives in a Bangalore slum, accepted BMTC’s gesture of Rs. 15,000, then went on to win a court award of Rs. 2.25 lakh, which she had to split with her attorney.

What was left, she said, is far too little for her future needs, much less some sense of emotional compensation.

“They are only depositing money,” Banu said about BMTC. “But what’s the use? The life has been taken. What can we do or say? We cannot hurt them or kill them. We cannot take a life for a life.”

13 Comments

  1. Hey I’m sorry to butt in like this, but my name is Ashwin and I’m also a fellow graduate from IIJNM. Congratulations you two (Urmi & KM) for getting this work published, but there is a small error that I hope you’ll noticed.

    The photo in the story is falsely credited to IIJNM. The photo was distributed to IIJNM under the consent of Mr. Saggare Ramaswamy (I hope I spelled it write), a fellow faculty. He also works for KPN (Karnataka Photo News) – someone verify that. So please credit the picture to it’s rightful source.

    Regards,
    Ashwin

  2. Urmi, I read the full report. Great work!
    On driver incentives, honestly, who cares about the chief minister’s gold or silver medal? A driver has family commitments; the medal has little to do with better family conditions. We need a better system of incentives for the driver and their managers is required, one that works on a weekly basis rather than yearly. Second, fix the schedule to reflect current road traffic conditions suggested in the report. Third, increase the base salary to 15000-20000 per month. Fourth, fire the manager not the driver.

  3. First of all let me introduce myself. I am the author of this report or study.

    Our investigation looked at only those bus drivers who were fully responsible for the accident and not the ones who are partially responsible.

    And by the way, KSRTC and BMTC have been seperated. They dont work together any more.

    Regarding incentives to a driver who drives well: thjose drivers who drive well are given chief minister’s gold or silver medal.

    Well, to clarify other doubts please have a look at the website: http://www.iijnm.org/investigations/bmtc.html

    That would give you all a better idea about the investigation. As it has all the statistics and other valuable details listed.

  4. What are the incentives for a bus driver to drive well?
    The public transport system is bursting at its seems, so without expanding the infrastructure how do you incentivise drivers to drive better? This is a broader issue beyond just BMTC buses.

    First if the public wants better drivers, then they need to pay more.
    I suggest that the driver’s daily salary should directly depend on the quality of driving. What if we have a voting scheme in which negative votes decrease a drivers daily salary bonus. You vote by calling a mobile phone numbe on the back of the bus. If the mobile number is defaced the driver faces a automatic penality of 25% of his potential bonus.

  5. How is it that the bus driver (say in a fatal accident) goes through an internal investigation and punishments are given out internally through the KSRTC?
    On the death of a person, doen’t the normal criminal law kick in???

    I feel its important that this is clarified.

    My sympathy does lie with the bus drivers though. They do go through torture everyday. And the traffic situation in Bangalore isn’t getting better.

  6. 1. It is unfair to blame the BMTC drivers for every accident as most two wheelers are very rash and overtake from the left all the time. That does not mean BMTC drivers can be rash and get away. How about auto drivers? The most arrogant and uncivil lot in the city, zipping around in a dangerous 3 wheeler which can topple anytime.

    2. Raj Chandra please do not compare Dubai, their rules are draconian and its a bulllshit dictatorship and one can land up in jail even if a pedestrian falls on your car. As for value of life in Dubai, ask the poor laborers who toil for peanuts in the hot desert sun 12 hours a day !

  7. It is amazing to see people supporting the KSRTC drivers. Is there different set of criminal law in India for Bus drivers and Car Drivers ? What is the rationale ? I just read today a Dubai court convicted a heavily pregnant woman of accidentally killing her unborn child while driving and bumping in to a car ahead while breaking at high speed ! Is the value of life in India any different if killed by a Heavy vehicle and an Expensive BMW/ Benz ?

  8. It will be unfair just to blame the BMTC drivers for the accidents, there is always two sides to it. Off course, there are reckless drivers but to slam all of those drivers involved in accidents as reckless would be unfair. But I would say that BMTC need to remove buses that are in pathetic conditions which are a more significant risk to the people on the road. You see at least couple of BMTC bus breakdowns in a day. We need to look at the whole environment(buses, drivers, road conditions etc.) before we can point fingers to just one of them.

  9. The Investigative Report, no doubt, is excellent. Who cares for the report. In the report itself some officer of BMTC terms such things “B******T”. You cannot mend the behaviour of these drivers. At the end of their trip they look at the Conductor for their usual quota. You can see with your bare eyes what happens when trip sheet is signed at the busstations before the bus departs. It seems some coin passes hands as if nobody knows it. Where is the discipline, I am not talking of BMTC but it is there in all spheres. It is not a big wonder, under the circumstances, that a driver is letoff and given back to sit behind the wheel, after the accident/fatal or otherwise

  10. This is an excellent report. I wish more investigative reports were this thorough.

  11. I support the two comments above, I am a car and motor cycle owner and I know the indiscipline of vehicle owners who threaten others on the road. Many times, motor cyclists squeeze in between buses and other vehicle and causing their own death. Motor cyclists believe that they are on the top of the priority ladder while in traffic and zig-zag any way possible to reach the front. Car drivers (yellow plate) are even more pathetic at times as they think that every other vehicle must move out of their way if they honk and must travel at equal speed. The driving schools are majorly to blame for such road culture as all that they teach is to operate a mechanical device on four wheels than inculcating road discipline and a sensitivity towards other motorists. Bus drivers are most stressed people in public service having to deal with un-comfortable seating (seldom on a wooden plank with a layer of foam) in most BMTC buses, un-maintained vehicles(brake lights and indicators dont work) and cramped roads, road rage and lack of bus lanes at major traffic points. I think the students of IIJNM must one day do a full shift duty on 2 to 4 routes standing next to the driver to get a feel of what they under go — My wife travels by bus despite we owning a car and a motorcycle and she seldom comes back feeling sad about the working conditions of these drivers as compared to Mumbai where BEST runs a much larger fleet of buses with fewer issues.

  12. “Of 500 fatal accidents since 2000”
    What percentage of total accidents in the city is 500?

    It must be noted that accidents in the city goes with driving style of city. Its sad but true that the *drivers* (including hifi car drivers to 2 wheelers) of Bangalore are reckless/careless. I wouldn’t blame entirely on BMTC for the accidents.

  13. The study by the students of IIJNM is quite short sighted. Accidents involving BMTC buses largely happen because of careless drivers of two wheelers and poorly designed pavements.

    To the credit of most BMTC drivers, they are not directly involved in all the accidents.

    It is high time the students focus on the lack of driving skills of private vehicle drivers and not the BMTC itself.

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