An oft quoted data, when it comes to road safety in India, is that every hour, 17 people die on the country’s roads. That’s 408 people per day.

Yet most of us Indians drive in a most irresponsible fashion. Perhaps we believe that accidents are things that only happen to other people. Maybe that is why we are so indifferent to the daily news reports of road crashes. Unless several hundred people die in a crash or a particularly gruesome incident, we just shrug it off as a regular day.

Road crashes (they really are not accidents as someone is usually at fault) kill and seriously injure/maim more people than malaria, dengue, chikungunya, kala azar, and Japanese encephalitis, combined. Yet we worry more about these diseases than making our roads safer.

The Government of India is finally waking up to the seriousness of this epidemic of unsafe roads and is trying to improve road safety by amending the law.

Amending the MV Act 1988

After several iterations and referrals to Parliamentary committees, The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill 2017 was passed by the Lok Sabha in April 2017. However it faced opposition, yet again, in the Rajya Sabha with states voicing concerns over dilution of the States’ powers as provided under the current act. The Bill, at present is being reviewed by a Rajya Sabha Select Committee and is expected to be discussed in the Winter Session of Parliament in 2017.

What does the Bill propose?

The Amendment Bill prioritises road safety and if passed is expected to reverse the unfortunate trend of increasing road accidents in the country.  As we have been highlighting in our earlier blogs, the Bill:

  • Cracks down on those who violate road rules. Penalties have been hiked for speeding, dangerous driving, drunk 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.

Tamilnadu 32

While the Amendment Bill is being debated by the Select Committee, and hopefully by the Rajya Sabha itself in the near future, CAG is conducting stakeholder meetings in all 32 districts of Tamil Nadu to discuss the Amendment Bill. These meetings include government officials, elected representatives, public transport staff, members of several unions, students, consumer groups, and the general public. We hope the meetings will provide an opportunity to share opinions and insights into the state of road safety in Tamil Nadu, the likely impact of the Amendment Bill and the need for such strong legislation.

Right to Information

As a prelude to the district-level meetings, RTIs were filed with the transport and police departments in each district to get a sense of the road safety situation in districts. While state- and national-level data exists in the public domain (the Government of India publishes reports annually), district-level data is not accessible. Data sought included number of crashes, deaths, injuries by road user type, and by road type (national and state highways). In addition, the RTIs sought data on enforcement of rules by asking for information on how many people were penalised for not wearing a helmet or seatbelt; for speeding and so on. While many districts replied, several also refused to share the data or just did not respond to the RTI. Some of the RTI responses are documented here.

 

 

State Minister K Pandiarajan addresses participants at the Thiruvallur district meeting

The spectre of Road Transport and Safety Bill (RTSB)

As of date, nine district-level meetings have been held in Thiruvallur, Kanchipuram, Villupuram, Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Thiruvarur, Karur, Dindigul, and Tiruchirappalli districts. The meetings have seen a range of participants (as mentioned before) with varied opinions on the Amendment Bill. Government officials, by and large, have been against the Amendment Bill because they are concerned the Centre is usurping their powers.

In Thiruvarur, auto and bus drivers were convinced that the Amendment Bill, if passed, would require them to retake a driving test as their licences would no longer be valid. They also believed that the licensing system would be privatised and were strongly against this. Another concern was that repairs to vehicles could be done only at service centres authorised by the vehicle manufacturer and this would escalate maintenance costs. In addition, such a move could put small ‘unauthorised’ mechanic shops out of business adversely impacting livelihoods.

These were interesting points as these had been a part of the original RTSB. In fact, the last two points had faced opposition from many quarters including CAG and other non-profits working on road safety. While there was in the RTSB, a move to privatise public transport (a concern expressed by government officials), thankfully this has been dropped in the current Amendment Bill. As for privatisation of the licensing system, while the wording in the Amendment Bill is not very lucid, it is clear that licensing can only be done by the government and certainly there is no requirement for drivers to retake the test if their current licence is valid. Bus drivers in two meetings welcomed the move for scientific investigation of road crashes, highlighting that under the current system, cases are invariably foisted on them as they are usually driving the larger vehicle involved.

These meetings have shown us that awareness of the Amendment Bill and its contents is varied. Some participants had no clue; others knew a fair amount about the RTSB but seemed to think that the Amendment Bill had much the same changes as the RTSB; and yet others felt that the current system is just fine and no changes at all are required!

This is exactly why we feel these district-level meetings have great value - they create a forum to discuss the Bill, debunk myths, understand different stakeholders’ viewpoint and potentially work together for safer roads for all.