How many road crashes take place in India? How many people die or are injured in these crashes? What vehicles were involved? Where did these crashes occur? All this and more information is essential to understanding road safety in the country and to reducing fatalities and injuries. This is self-evident.

So who collects this information and is it available in the public domain? Again, rather obviously, one would expect the government to collect this information and yes, they do so. Data is collated by the State Crime Records Bureau in each state and shared with the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). This data is then published by the NCRB every year in its report, Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India. The State Crime Records Bureaux, of course, depend on the Police for their data. This, then is the official government data.

However, as WHO in its Global Status of Road Safety Report, notes there are quite a few gaps in the data of low- and middle-income countries. So much so that WHO’s estimate of India’s contribution to road crash fatalities in the world is 16.6 per cent (per 100,000 population) while the Government of India pegs it at 11 per cent. In terms of actual fatalities, that is a difference of a whopping 69,979. (These numbers are based on 2013 data).

Research indicates that road crashes are underreported and there is a question about the quality of the data collected. In addition, the recording of road crash information is not done in an open and transparent manner. Putting all of this aside and taking the government data at face value, we have state- and national-level aggregated data as provided by NCRB but district-level information in unavailable in the public domain.

In an attempt to close the gaps (or at least narrow them) in data in the public domain about road crashes, CAG had filed RTI (Right to Information) petitions with the concerned departments (police and transport) at the district level in Tamil Nadu as well as government hospitals in Chennai. The idea behind filing RTIs with government hospitals was to see if road crashes are recorded and shared with the police to file FIRs. This also helps ensure more robust data. While departments from several districts promptly responded with the data, some refused the information giving specious reasons.

Too much work

The PIO, Superintendent of Police, Cuddalore district claimed that collecting information for five years from the 50 police stations in the district is too much work and so cannot be done as per Section 7(9) of the RTI Act. Section 7(9) says, “An information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question.”

Such data is supposed to be aggregated regularly at the district level. After all this is the data which is supposed to reach the state government at Chennai every year, if not more frequently. If all this data is not available at the district headquarters, how then is the District Road Safety Council (Chaired by the District Collector and consisting of relevant government departments and mandated with the task as per the MVA 1988) implementing the Road Safety policy?

Asking for data on road crashes equals threatening/suppressing upright government employees

The reply from the PIO, Superintendent of Police, Tiruppur district informs us that RTIs must not be used to suppress or threaten honest, hard-working government employees and if the RTI reply requires 75% or more of the public servant’s time then they are not required to provide the information sought as per TN Information Commission ruling SA/1888/B/2016 and Section 7(9) of the RTI Act. (The TNIC ruling is unfortunately not available on the Commission website although they have a searchable database of their rulings.) How information on number of accidents in the district, kind of vehicles involved, and number of injured and killed in accidents could be used to threaten government employees (honest, hard-working, or otherwise) is unclear to us.

Asking for number of road crashes is an invasion of privacy

A third RTI reply from the Senior Medical Records Officer, Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital, Chennai refused information under Sections 8(1)(e) and 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act that note that information which is confidential and the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest or that would cause invasion of privacy of the individual. Again, the information sought is around the number of road accident cases treated in government hospitals (as inpatients or outpatients), number of road accident cases treated for which FIR was filed, etc. All of these involve only the number of cases i.e. aggregated data. In no way is the personal information of any individual asked for.

Needless to say, we have filed first appeals. Several districts though have shared data - partially or fully. So how can it be harassment/invasion of privacy for some districts but not others? This is the kind of data that should be in the public domain. In fact, the government should publicize it to underscore how many lives we are losing to road crashes and the negative impact that these accidents have on the economy. This might shake up our lethargic citizenry to drive better.