Mechanized rickshaws: answer to Bangladesh's traffic problems?

Year after year, Bangladesh's government has schemed to rid its city streets of their worst traffic hazard -- the cycle-rickshaw. The authorities blame the pedal-powered, three-wheeled vehicles for nearly 70 percent of an average 2,500 road deaths each year. But the number of rickshaws keep growing.

Municipal officials say 100,000 rickshaws ply Dacca's streets. Each is often operated by three men on separate shifts. The averge driver usually has a family of five people to support.

Sgt. Salahuddin Ahmed Based, a traffic police sergeant, said banning rickshaws could jeopardize the livelihood of up to one-fourth of Dacca's 6 million people and indirectly affect countless more.

Bangladesh Industry Minister Sultan Mahmud announced a few months ago that Dacca University engineering students had designed a mechanized version of the rickshaw which he claimed would be faster, accommodate more people and be more economically viable in the long run.

The student designers told reporters each mechanized rickshaw would cost nearly $700 -- twice the price of traditional vehicles -- although they hoped the price would fall by 30 or 40 percent if they were mass-produced commercially.

``Even if the government starts selling mechanized rickshaws on a mass scale I won't be able to buy one, and neither will many other drivers,'' one rickshaw owner said.``Besides, where do I get trained drivers to pull them?'' he asked.

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