Roads and Mobility have become a sine qua non to a country’s development. They are an essential part of human life. Though roads and advances in transportation have helped humans fulfill their need to move from place to place, it has not been without adverse consequences. Globally, road crashes are one of the leading causes of death for people aged between 5 and 29 years. India’s road safety record is alarming. Our road users face an extraordinary amount of risk; this can be understood when we compare the 1.5 lakh fatalities in India in 2018 with fatalities in other countries like China (63,000) and the US (37,000). These losses have adverse effects on families and societies.

In India, until recently, road safety has not got the necessary attention it deserves. This includes aspects like safety in road design and construction, driver training, enforcement, and education. With Motor Vehicles Amendment Act, 2019 (MVAA 2019) getting passed in Parliament, road safety got a shot in the arm. However, hurdles have cropped up in the implementation of the law earnestly.

The changes in law are all very well but implementation and enforcement is key 
After several iterations of the amendment act and under different names that were debated and opposed, the central government passed the MVAA 2019, addressing the road safety gaps in the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. 

The new law has several provisions that can improve our road safety drastically when implemented and enforced on the ground by the state governments. Section 198A provides for stringent punishment of contractors for faulty design, engineering, and maintenance of roads. There is growing recognition that road users are not to be exclusively blamed for all crashes, and that poor road design could contribute as well. The new Act also requires scientific investigation of road crashes to be carried out to ascertain the cause. These provisions (and many other provisions), however, will be implementable only after the Centre frames rules under the Central Motor Vehicle Rules.

There are, however, a couple of provisions that state governments can implement immediately. One such provision is Section 138 dealing with pedestrians and non motorised road users who were earlier not under the ambit of the law. Now state governments can make rules to regulate the activities of pedestrians and non-motorised road users in all roads except National Highways. This is important because pedestrian and bicycle fatalities account upto 39% to 45% of road crash fatalities. States can use this provision to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists. 

The new law provides for stronger punishment for drunk driving, speeding, violation of helmet and seatbelt laws, etc. As has been reported extensively in the media, fines for violation of road rules have been increased several fold. The Act also allows for a 10% increase every year keeping in mind inflation. This increased penalty was notified on September 01, 2019. So far 11 states/UT have implemented it. 

Yet states like Tamil Nadu have refused to implement the increase in penalties even though the ruling party supported the passage of the Act in Parliament, nor have they used the provision on NMT to make roads safer for the vulnerable group. One wonders why the Tamil Nadu government is dragging its feet on this matter. Do they fear it will be an unpopular move especially with 2021 being an election year? 

Galvanising local authorities is key to improving road safety 
While the Centre updates the CMVR in keeping with the 2019 Act, let us look at how Tamil Nadu has fared in implementing the 1988 Act. What is the system in place and how is it functioning? Section 215 Of Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 gives powers to the state government to constitute a District Road Safety Committee (DRSC), the nodal agency at the district level. The DRSC is chaired by the District Collector, and has as its members representatives from the transport, highways, public works, health departments; NGOs and others. CAG filed Right To Information (RTI) applications to all 32 districts (before the recent bifurcations) of Tamil Nadu seeking information about the functioning of DRSC through minutes of their meetings and budgetary details. On studying the responses we found some interesting things.

In terms of budget, the state has a Road Safety Fund (of Rs 65 cr per annum) and districts are required to send in proposals each year. A committee approves the proposals and allocates the money. However, in some districts we found that funds were approved and disbursed as late as September or October. Since districts have to utilise the money by the financial year end (March), ensuring that the planned interventions are completed cannot be easy. 

The state government has directed that the DRSC meet at least once every month. However this is hardly put into practice. For example Chennai DRSC met only once in 2019. When regular meetings do not take place, improvements in road safety cannot be planned and coordinated for the district as a whole thus resulting in a piecemeal approach to road safety. This also raised the question whether road safety is important at all for the district administration?

Though the DRSC must include two members from civil society, their participation was not seen in many districts. This is a big concern as they play a critical role in improving transparency and effective implementation of road safety measures. It was also found that data related to working of the DRSC is not readily shared in the public domain. 

It was also found that funds were largely spent on awareness programmes, minor road works such as setting up speed breakers, and for buying equipment. The minutes of the DRSC meetings show that the favourite response to increased crashes at any location was to install speed breakers and cautionary signs. There is no indication as to why these were considered to be the solution or if any sort of analysis of the location, the causes for crashes, etc., was conducted. Do DRSCs even have a process for this? There is growing evidence that more than road users, it is faulty road design which is a major reason for crashes. 

The new 2019 Act requires scientific investigation of crashes. This, then, will require studying damage to the vehicle, collecting evidence from the crash scene, reconstructing the road crash and deducing the possible reasons for the road crash. Considering the rather unscientific process currently followed, the implementing authorities will surely need a lot of capacity building before they can tackle this aspect of road safety. There also seems to be little awareness of global shifts in road design and traffic management. Globally, countries are recognising that road design can ensure greater safety for all road users. This is through traffic calming measures, designing roads to separate NMT from motorised transport, etc. Training on such things are required for road engineers and road designers in the government. Addressing these shortcomings will greatly improve the functioning of the DRSC, enabling a reduction in road crash fatalities and injuries. 

These issues were also raised and discussed at a consultation conducted by CAG on 12 June 2020. The consultation saw participation from academics, CSOs, and the general public. The changes in the law and their potential impact were debated as were the current ground realities in different districts, including the impact of the current global pandemic.

Notwithstanding the many challenges to road safety, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it some more complications. Firstly it remains to be seen if the momentum towards implementing the MVAA, 2019, by the states will slow down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With the governments focusing on Covid-19 containment efforts and with the prevailing economic slowdown, focus on improving road safety could take a hit. 

Road crash fatalities in India have been a hidden epidemic so far. Our effort to provide more teeth to enforcement authorities by tightening laws would be effective only when they are implemented and enforced in letter and spirit, else the gains made due to the passing of the MVAA, 2019, in terms of reduction in road crash fatalities and improved driving discipline shown by road users would be lost as drivers would go back to their old ways seeing that the laws are not enforced. It’s time we give equal weightage to lives lost in road crashes and that of the lives lost in the pandemic.