madpen's journal

Riding the Most Lethal Highway in the World

The N2, or Sylhet-Dhaka Highway, has been named one of the most ‘lethal’ roadways in the world. It’s a good thing I read that after surviving it.

"Oh, God, not another 186KM on the N2!"

“Oh, God, not another 186km on the N2!”

I rode its entire length, from Sylhet, a large city in Bangladesh’s northeast, to Dhaka, its capital about 125 mi (200km) to the southwest. “125 miles?” you say. “It’s not even that long!” you protest. But you have no idea what distances mean in Bangladesh. It took us about 9 hours from start to finish. And that was decent time. Along the way, we witnessed 6 mangled vehicles, several dozen creatures turned into red/brown stains, 11 breakdowns, at least 50 near-collisions, and 8 ambulances hopelessly stuck in gridlock. It’s a wonder we didn’t see more accidents, though that is certainly a testament to the skill of Bangladeshi drivers. The highway, ‘servicing’ tens of thousands of vehicles each day, has just two lanes with narrow, depressed (~2in) shoulders, no center barrier, potholes, and occasionally painted boundary lines. The lack of barrier, the placement of which would surely save hundreds of innocent lives, is due to Bangladesh’s ‘multimodal’ transportation system. This means that the highway is shared, in many parts, by mini buses, large buses, huge buses (with people on the roof), rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, tractors, push-bikes, motorbikes (with up to 5 passengers, helmets not included), wooden carts, livestock, dogs, and pedestrians. Or, in other words, the system involves a lot of overtaking. And overtaking on the Sylhet-Dhaka Highway resembles a very aggressive game of ‘chicken,’ with big overgrown bullies. The bus/truck with the highest crunching power (i.e. mass) can, and will, run everyone else off the road without so much as batting an eye. Among the 200-some long-distance buses we passed, each holding 70+ people, not one was free of scars and cavities from numerous fender-benders and collisions, and not one hesitated to overtake as many as 3 construction vehicles while auto-rickshaws and cars scattered and braked into narrow shoulders, all precariously close to falling down embankments into a ditches/streams/rice paddies. Of course, such passing, and indeed all driving in general on the N2, requires skilled/obscene/gratuitous use of one’s horn, such that there is no minute of peace along its entire length. And no, if you dared ask, there is no speed limit. Police? barely.

Pair all this with 100+ degree humidity and a blazing sun, our car’s broken AC and stereo systems, a leaking radiator (swallowed 1 liter of bottled mineral water every 10km), a cigarette-consuming companion, and around zero enforced emissions standards, and I can safely say that if there is a hell, and if that hell has a highway, it is surely modeled after the N2.

Apparently World Bank is partly to blame: they funded the N2’s renovation in 2005, promptly forgot to ensure the enforcement of proper safety standards, and have subsequently witnessed an almost 50% increase in the number of accidents per year.

Despite my numbness towards vehicular terror, wrought on the roads of China, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, I still gripped my seat a few times on the way back to Dhaka. I was often more occupied with breathing as few fumes as possible (still feels like I smoked 1000 cigarettes) than with the prospect of imminent, blaring, multi-color metallic death.


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