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June 19, 2012

Making our roads safer

Fighting death and despair on our roads is a national challenge

India has the worst record of road safety in the world. The numbers are truly horrific. India accounts for 10 percent of the global road accidents, but only 1 percent of the world’s vehicles. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, which is the official repository of such statistics, around 1.35 lakh deaths were reported due to road accidents in 2010.

These figures are higher than those of any other country in the world, including China. There is one major road accident in India every minute. 370 persons, the equivalent of a full load of a Jumbo jetliner, leave home every day in India and meet with violent deaths in road accidents. 35 out of 100 people dying in India die because of road accidents; they are the main cause of mortality among 1-40 year olds. An Indian is 20 times more likely to die in a road accident than a citizen of the developed world. The injured, half a million every year and often with permanent disabilities, share a miserable future along with their families. According to The Planning Commission, the country loses as much as 3 percent of its GDP every year due to road crashes. This makes road accidents one of India’s biggest public health challenges. What is worrisome is that the situation gets worse every year. As with much else in India today, policymakers and policy implementers are reasonably aware as to what needs to be done. What is lacking is serious concerted action with a view to bringing about a significant difference to the alarming situation.

There is no doubt that road accidents are a global phenomenon. The World Heath Organisation predicts that by 2030, road traffic injuries will become the fifth leading cause of death in the world. Taking cognizance of the seriousness of the situation, the UN General Assembly through Resolution 64/255 of May 10th, 2010, proclaimed 2011–2020 as the Decade of Action for Road Safety, with a global goal of stabilising and then reducing the forecast level of road fatalities by increasing activities conducted at the national, regional and global levels. Resolution 64/255 requested the World Health Organisation to work with all stakeholders to prepare a Plan of Action for the Decade as a guiding document to support the implementation of its objectives. Governments of member states are expected to develop a road-map to achieve this goal and then take appropriate steps to implement it.

Photo: Misha Dontsov

In India, a comprehensive plan is indeed being put together to reduce deaths due to road accidents by 50 percent by 2020. But that seems to be about all. In practical terms, the Government at the Centre as well as those in the states seem to be largely unmoved by the enormity of the challenge. Different aspects of the roads and road safety are handled by the Centre and the states and within them there are multiple authorities to deal with almost every issue. As a result, there is no comprehensive approach to the adoption and implementation of road safety measures. The creation of a Central Road Safety Authority through an Act of Parliament brooks no delay. A Bill to establish a National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board is currently with the Standing Committee of Parliament on Road Transport and Highways. But the Bill covers only national highways. Its purview must extend to all roads.

To set up such a National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board,  the Centre would have to hold extensive consultations with the states and find a way for the state governments  to accept the central body’s jurisdiction, with regard to road safety, over roads under their purview (like the state highways). However, if this becomes difficult in the current atmosphere of heightened federal instincts, then the states could set up similar bodies that could work in tandem with the central board.

The road safety board would have the power to call for information on major road accidents in the states and based on its analysis of the accidents, make recommendations regarding standards of road design for safer roads and provisioning of emergency care, strengthening of traffic rules and their enforcement, reviewing arrangements for training and capacity building with regard to personnel relating to different aspects of road safety, and creating awareness about and improving vehicular safety standards. The Board could also be the repository of all data pertaining to road accidents.

Road safety is a subject that involves multiple ministries, including health, education, road transport & highways, industry and home. The road safety and traffic management board will work towards inter-departmental coordination at the state level as well as coordination between the Centre and the states. It will ensure that there is a holistic, integrated and inter-disciplinary approach to road safety.

The Board, at the state level, may be set up through an Act passed by the state legislature, However, if that is deemed to be difficult to accomplish expeditiously, then a Road Safety Council with a permanent secretariat may be set up with the Chief Minister as the chairperson. At the central level, the Road Safety Board can make a significant contribution towards the creation of a comprehensive central road traffic law. The Law Commission has drawn attention to the need for such a legislation to effectively and holistically regulate all kinds of traffic.  The Seventh Schedule of the Constitution would have to be amended to bring about such a central law.

The war against road accidents have to be waged on four fronts– Enforcement, Engineering, Education and Emergency-Care.

Enforcement: To improve enforcement, the traffic police should be suitably strengthened in terms of manpower and equipment. There should be separate dedicated units of traffic police for the highways and the metropolitan towns/other urban conglomerations. Particular attention must also be paid to some provisions of the law, including the Motor Vehicles Act 1988 (MVA) and the Central Motor Vehicles Rules 1989 (CMVR). Enforcement of these can produce immediate and significant results. Thus, there should be a rigorous implementation of the rules relating to the wearing of helmets on two wheelers and seat belts in cars; an enhancement of vehicular visibility at night by ensuring the use of conspicuous reflective tapes (as prescribed per AIS 090 standards) by all public service vehicles, viz. three wheelers, taxis, light commercial vehicles, heavy commercial vehicles and buses; conspicuous reflective tapes must also be used by tractors, trucks and trailers; mandatory fitment of side and rear under-run protection devices in trucks and buses; rigorous implementation of CMVR rule 104 for installation of prescribed mirrors in different category of vehicles, particularly with respect to three wheelers; enforcement of rule 93 of CMVR defining the overall dimensions of various categories of motor vehicles, particularly, for trolleys and trailers; and strict action against overloading of motor vehicles; such action must include the prevention of any post-registration modifications to vehicles to enhance loading capacity.

These rules should be enforced by the traffic police during routine checking of traffic and by the Transport Department staff at the time of the annual inspection of vehicles.Special Courts, utilising the services of retired judges, should be set up for speedy disposal of traffic related cases and routine challenges in appeals must be opposed. The amount of fines for common traffic offences should be reviewed and enhanced to act as deterrent.

Education: Communication is perhaps our most effective weapon in the war to make our roads safer. Road users, especially those who are called vulnerable road users (pedestrians and two wheeler riders amongst others) must be made to realise that their own lives depend on adhering to the rules of the road. Likewise, drivers of four wheelers must be made aware of the consequences of rash and negligent driving.

Again, road users must be told that helping accident victims can save lives. More importantly they must know that if they help an accident victim they stand no risk of harassment by the authorities. The Times of India recently carried a poignant news report with the headline, “Onlookers all around, boy bleeds to death in Lucknow”. It said, inter alia,”Some of the people were heard saying that touching the boy could land them in unwarranted police interrogation.” This was not an isolated incident. It is common for motorists and bystanders in India to hesitate to rush to the aid of accident victims. However, the Supreme Court has clarified that no one rushing an accident victim to hospital would be harassed by the police. Nor could a hospital refuse to admit such a victim.  (AIR 1989 Supreme Court 2039 and GOI Circular No.RT-25028/2/2003-RSC dated February 19, 2004.)

Unfortunately, this ruling of the Supreme Court is neither widely known nor publicised. As a result, road accident victims often do not receive medical attention during the vital “golden hour” when such intervention can save their lives or mitigate their injuries. A mammoth publicity drive needs to be mounted to educate citizens of all age groups about traffic rules and regulations as well as their rights and duties. This drive must use all available means, including, hoardings, posters, mass media (like cinema, radio and television), and social media, as well as school curricula and syllabi.

Engineering: Road design is an area that we disregard routinely when we look at traffic accidents. The immediate reaction is to blame the driver (more often than not the one who drives the bigger or more expensive vehicle). But experts are of the view that our roads are seldom designed keeping road safety in mind. In fact far from being “self-explaining” or “forgiving” as they should be, our roads or sections thereof are often decidedly lethal.

Yet, those responsible for the design, building and maintenance of roads, as well as for signages, are seldom taken to task when accidents occur. Experts say that many accidents can be prevented by better planning and designing of roads. Incorporation of safety features in road design and regular safety audits are a must. Safety features are often the first casualty when planners look at the budgets of road building projects with a view to pruning costs. Safety features included in the design of any highway should be highlighted through a separate chapter in the detailed project report. This would serve to discourage officials from eliminating safety features on roads solely with a view to reducing project costs.

Systematic identification and treatment of hazardous spots can substantially improve road safety. An urgent review must be carried out of the safety conditions prevalent on all important roads, including national and state highways and major district roads, by conducting a safety audit of these road networks. The agency responsible for the maintenance of the concerned roads must make available in the public domain all information pertaining to the audit conducted on them, the recommendations made and the action taken on those.

Emergency Care: Proper medical care administered in time to accident victims can save lives. This requires the setting up of fully equipped trauma centres in hospitals or primary health centres linked to major highways and making this information easily available to road users through appropriate road signage, police stations and use of standardised emergency care numbers. In urban areas and metropolitan towns, there would be a number of hospitals dispersed all over. Properly equipped hospitals should be linked to distinct areas and this information made available through special numbers or police control rooms.

Arrangements need to be made to train emergency medical technicians and doctors with requisite skills in emergency response services. As per the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, the drivers of heavy motor vehicles are required to be trained in first aid trauma care and the vehicles equipped with first aid boxes. If enforced, this simple rule can lead to the prevention of many deaths.

Making our roads safer is a stupendous task that requires the Government, both at the Centre and in the states, to work with private bodies, including corporates, NGOs and citizens’ groups. Significant financial outlays are called for. It has been proposed that since road safety is a mission of national importance, the Government must encourage wider participation by declaring that expenditure incurred on approved road safety measures would be exempt from income tax. This could be along the lines of the income tax exemption provided in the proposed Direct Tax Code on expenditure incurred on promotion of family planning and prevention of HIV AIDS.

This makes eminent sense, since road safety is one of India’s very biggest public health challenges. If such an incentive is made available, private sector companies, ever eager to find avenues for effective brand promotion as well as for demonstrating corporate social responsibility, would come forward in large numbers to share the government’s financial burden.


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