In March 2019, a couple of media reports noted that Tamil Nadu saw a drop in road crash fatalities by 24 per cent in 2018 when compared to 2017. This is welcome news and we can only hope this trend continues in the state and is replicated across the country. In spite of this news, however, I would argue that not much has changed on the road safety front in the country (or Tamil Nadu for that matter).
Road Safety or rather the lack thereof is, according to the government, due to unruly road users who refuse to respect the rule of law and the solution to this is awareness programmes. While this is certainly an issue, more than purposeful violation of the law, anecdotally, we find that many people do not actually know the road rules or their logic. Awareness programmes to counter this will only take us up to a point; we need more rigorous licencing systems (it is too easy to get a driving licence or to renew it) and smarter (not just in the ‘smart devices’ sense of the word) enforcement of the law.
Another issue which is rarely focused on is infrastructure. Our roads and the associated infrastructure are not built from a road safety perspective but more from the perspective of moving more motorised traffic (alongside other concerns such as cost, land availability, etc). Globally the understanding of road infrastructure has come a long way but our roads are still stuck in the Middle Ages. There are also issues of quality and durability; lack of accountability for the construction.
Everyone who drives in India, when asked what is wrong with traffic in the country will point at 2 things - the first being other road users (as if they drive perfectly themselves) and the second being poor enforcement of traffic rules. It is true that enforcement is lacking but one must admit that the hapless traffic constable has an unenviable job. How is he to single-handedly control traffic flow and nab the many violators? How does he even get them to stop so he can challan them? In addition, he has to do all this in extreme heat and pollution. Considering the growing traffic in the country, the police are undermanned and under-equipped to enforce the rules. A potential solution is to have random but regular checks instead of the ‘helmet’ drive or ‘seatbelt’ drive that is the norm. Instead of intensively catching people for a particular violation for a few days or setting up roadblocks on weekend nights (often at the same spots) for drunken driving, checking should be random. As a road user, I should not know when I will get pulled over and my papers checked. It could be at 6 a.m or 11 p.m. The mindset of a road user should be that he/she could be stopped and checked anytime, anywhere, for anything (i.e any road rule violation). This would encourage road users to be more cognizant of their driving, and curb the impulse to break the law.
Data, data, data
As Sherlock Holmes says in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, “Data! Data! Data!” Data on the cause of road crash is woefully inadequate. This has long been an issue with transport researchers pointing out flaws in the data collection and therefore the impact on the analysis (this obviously then could impact implementation of appropriate road safety measures). India is yet to put in place a system for scientific investigation of road crashes. If you look at the reports of the Government of India, most crashes are ascribed to driver’s fault. This is a conveniently vague term that does not provide any useful information.
All of these were addressed in the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill 2016 which was passed in the Lok Sabha in 2017 but since then has been stuck in the Rajya Sabha with the declaration of the Lok Sabha elections, the Bill has now lapsed. The Bill’s potted history has been covered here. Briefly, the Bill seeks to do the following:
Crack down on those who violate road rules. Penalties have been hiked for speeding, dangerous driving, drink driving, etc. It is hoped that this will act as a deterrent;
Requires helmets/ safety provisions for children on two-wheelers;
Makes traffic and Road Safety Education compulsory in school curricula;
Proposes the creation of a National Road Safety Board and National Road Safety Fund;
Proposes scientific investigation of causes of road crashes;
Gives powers to the State Governments to carry out road safety audits;
Proposes to hold road contractors, etc., accountable for faulty design, construction, and maintenance of roads;
Requires every road construction project/contract to include provisions such as washrooms, medical facilities, trauma centres, petrol pumps, parking spaces, etc.; and
Requires the operator of a highway to set up ambulances every 30 kms.
Since early 2018, when the Rajya Sabha Select Committee submitted its report, the Bill has languished. The Bill has not been tabled for discussion in the Rajya Sabha. Strangely enough, once or twice when the Bill was listed in the business of the House, the Minister for Road Transport & Highways was missing from the House. The Minister, who has, from the start of his tenure, spoken of his commitment to road safety and therefore the importance he places on this Bill, was not present when the Bill was to be discussed. It is another matter entirely that the Bill never came up for discussion in the Rajya Sabha.
With the end of the Winter Session 2018 of Parliament the chances of the Bill being discussed, let alone passed, grew very dim. The Budget Session, in an election year, is of course brief and few Bills get passed. The Government, in spite of its professed fervour over road safety, failed to use any of this time to move the Bill forward. With the announcement of the General Elections of 2019, the Bill has lapsed.
We hope that the next Government treats this issue with the seriousness it deserves.