Let’s make roads safer

Almost every morning we wake up to grisly newspaper reports about road accidents in the country. Most are chilling stories: a Lamborghini crash in Delhi claims the driver’s life and places another life in critical danger; two people, including the half-sister of Bollywood actor Fardeen Khan, were killed in a collision between two cars in south Delhi; a schoolbus crash kills 10 schoolchildren near Ambala; five members of a family die in an accident on the Mumbai-Pune expressway.

These are all recent cases, and only a few from the plethora of accident stories crowding the news pages.
India has the worst record of road safety in the world. The highest number of road fatalities is reported from India. If that wasn’t enough, consider these:
(1) India accounts for 10 per cent of the global road accidents.
(2) There is one major road accident in India every minute.
(3) Three hundred and sixty persons, the equivalent of a full-house jumbo jet, leave home every day in India and meet with violent death in a road accident.
(4) An Indian is 20 times more likely to die in a road accident than a citizen of the developed world.
(5) The injured, half a million every year, share a miserable future, along with their families.
(6) The country loses as much as three per cent of its GDP every year due to road crashes.
And yet we allow the situation to get worse every year. There is realisation in certain sections of the government that the situation is extremely grim. But that realisation is not translated into action to reverse the trend. Public consciousness is very poor. If it were otherwise, the situation would not be so bad.
The UN General Assembly has declared 2011-2020 as the Decade of Action on Road Safety with a view to stabilising and then reducing the number of fatalities due to road accidents. Governments are expected to develop a roadmap to achieve this goal and then take appropriate steps to implement it.
There is little evidence of any concerted national effort to meet this enormous challenge. Different aspects of 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.
The war against road accidents calls for concerted action on four fronts: enforcement, engineering, education and emergency care.
Strict implementation of existing traffic laws, with changes in the law in certain areas, is bound to see a sharp reduction in violations. 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 say 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 road design, road building and signage are never taken to task when accidents occur. The most recent example of this is the fatal accident on the Rao Tula Ram Flyover on Outer Ring Road, New Delhi. On a badly designed flyover, “the sudden division of the lane without even a proper diversion signal… led to the accident” which killed one Afghan national on February 16, the police has admitted. But who will pay for the lapse? Incorporation of safety features in road design and regular safety audits are a must.
Above everything else, there is need for communication of road safety messages through all available means. At this time, there is absolutely no awareness among most road users that adherence to traffic rules is in their own interest. It is equally important to spread the word about the efficacy of some simple measures to enhance road safety. Accident relief is an excellent example. The injured in road accidents are often not rushed to hospitals by other road users because they are apprehensive of harassment. But the Supreme Court has decreed, in 2004, that no one rushing an injured accident victim to the hospital would be questioned or harassed by the police and, furthermore, no hospital can refuse to attend to the victim. If this is widely known and acted upon, many lives can be saved in that “golden hour” after an accident when succour is critical.
Ushering a road safety revolution in the country is a mammoth 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 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 expenditures incurred on promotion of family planning and prevention of HIV/AIDS. An industry body has written to finance minister Pranab Mukherjee seeking such an exemption. This makes eminent sense, since road safety is one of India’s very biggest public health challenges.

The writer, a public affairs analyst, is founder and chief executive of the consulting firm Moving Finger Communications

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