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Licence to Kill

Back in 2000, I was conscripted into teaching a friend to drive a two-wheeler. My friend had bought a Scooty or rather inveigled her father into buying one. He did so with the proviso that I teach her to drive it. So every weekend I would head over to their place and we would drive around. I remember telling my friend that the rules, of course, had to be followed but the Golden Rule of Driving in India was to assume everyone on the road was an idiot who would break the road rules in every conceivable (and inconceivable) way and as the only sane souls on the streets, we just had to anticipate such behaviour, take appropriate safety measures while staying within the law ourselves.

My friend seriously considered quitting her pursuit of a driving licence.

And who could blame her? Driving on Indian roads is a fraught experience. It requires one to mentally don armour, gird the loins, and head out to do battle. The war zone has a plethora of vehicles of all sizes and shapes, zipping in and out, switching lanes with abandon, hogging lanes in case one lane moves faster, all the while belching fumes and threatening to burst eardrums with their horns, engine noise, and screechy brakes. Add to this chaos, pedestrians dart hither and thither, vehicles park haphazardly, buses stop bang in the centre of the road (with passengers milling about), and of course bikes (and even cars) drive on the pavement or American-style on the right side of the road, and potholes litter the roads along with unmarked speed breakers and barricades that come and go with no warning. Yet most of us make it through our daily commute intact. Or so we think. What do the statistics say? Are road accidents really a concern?

According to the WHO’s Global Status Report on Road Safety, 2015, globally, road accidents are the ninth leading cause of death across all age groups and predicted to only get closer to the top as the years go by. Over 1.2 million people die each year due to road accidents and upto 50 million sustain non-fatal injuries. Estimates of the economic burden of road accidents peg it at 5 per cent of the GDP for low and middle income countries (India, btw, is classified as a middle income country). So how many die on Indian roads (leaving aside the serious injuries that can hamper quality of life permanently)? Well in 2014, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 1,41,526 people died.  Among states, Tamil Nadu comes third (after Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra) with 17,023 deaths.

Something anyone who has taken a driver’s licence test in India is familiar with.
Something anyone who has taken a driver’s licence test in India is familiar with.(Source:

So why does insanity reign over our roads? Much has been said and debated over this. Governments, researchers and civil society all have their take on it. Unfortunately it’s not one simple thing but a bunch of issues that need to be addressed. These are (in no particular order of importance):

  1. Road user behaviour: That’s us driving like lunatics and taking risks on the road that endanger us and other people. We break the traffic rules with impunity – be it stopping behind the pedestrian crossing, overtaking on the right, not blinding others with the high beam, not honking in school and hospital zones and much more.
  2. Road design: This is based on standards set by the Indian Roads Congress and is supposed to be based on scientific data but often it seems barricades and speed breakers and whatnot just appear randomly and disappear equally randomly. Certainly there is no uniformity in these things. Not to mention roads being friendly for vulnerable users like children, the elderly, and the differently abled.
  3. Accountability and transparency: An enduring problem in all aspects of life in India! The lack of accountability and transparency in how licences are issued, penalties imposed, etc adds to our road safety problems.
  4. Legislation and enforcement: While we have legislation in India, it could be stronger, cracking down on violators and for this our enforcement is sadly inadequate.
  5. Driving skills: While Indians seem to believe that accidents are things that happen to other people, the numbers indicate otherwise. Our driving tests are rudimentary and most people do not learn or bother to learn the finer nuances of driving such as who has right of way in a narrow road.
  6. Car safety: Cars in India, says the WHO, fail to meet international standards. Car manufacturers get away with inundating the Indian market with cars that do not meet international standards because India does not have strict standards of its own. In short Indian lives are not as valuable as Western lives.

Considering that India only has one per cent of the world’s roads and yet accounts for 10 per cent of fatalities due to road accidents, one would think we as a nation would be a tad concerned about this issue. There are of course a few groups across the country working on improving road safety through various means as we will see in future posts, as we delve deeper into the subject.


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