Since April 2017 when the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, there was hope that the Bill would become an Act. As each session of Parliament came and went, hope receded. The Bill finally lapsed and with the 2019 elections being announced there was uncertainty if the issue of road safety would feature in the new government’s agenda.

Groups working on road safety, in fact, requested parties to keep in mind the abysmal road safety record of our country and make this issue a priority. Saving nearly 1.5 lakh lives (every year) should be a priority, should it not?

Recent media reports indicate the Government is planning to reintroduce the Bill. As documented in earlier issues of Public Newsense, the Bill saw much opposition from the states, in particular the southern states with concerns over the transport reforms proposed in the Bill. As states made it clear, they had no objections to the road safety parts of the Bill. One option suggested then was to separate these two components and pass an independent Road Safety Bill which would be non-controversial. However, this did not take place. Now with the Government planning to reintroduce the unchanged Bill, these questions will surely arise again.

In the meantime, in March 2019, 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.

Details of what measures were taken, how effective they were, and what needs to be done to further improve the situation is not known, at least to the public. However, there are several points that have been flagged by the Supreme Court Committee on Road Safety and others. These need to be addressed by the state as they fall within the state’s purview and does not require them to wait on the Bill or on the Centre’s concurrence.

In 2014, hearing a PIL filed by a doctor on the preventable nature of road traffic deaths and injuries, the Supreme Court constituted a Committee on Road Safety, consisting of a judge, former bureaucrat, and a scientist, to oversee the Central and State governments’ progress on road safety. 

The Committee has been actively issuing directions to states to improve their road safety record and rapping states’ knuckles when they do not comply. The Committee has directed all states to establish, among other things, a lead agency for road safety, a road safety policy, and a State Road Safety Council consisting of relevant government officials to the high-level body at the state on road safety. The Council is required to meet, at a minimum, twice a year. States have also been directed to form a non-lapsable Road Safety Fund. Most of these directives are sensible and logical, yet, from what we can gather, from secondary research and talking to officials etc, not much has been done in reality. 

 

A privilege, not a right

One of the suggestions made was to cap licences issued daily at 4 licences per official (ie Motor Vehicles Inspector) so as to ensure every licence application is carefully checked and evaluated. Also suggested was a cap on the number of vehicles that can be owned by a family/person; and a cap on the number of vehicles registered in a period of time.

These will help address some issues with the licensing process. Licences are handed out like candy. There is no rigour in testing and the process is easily manipulated. Several states are now investing in automated testing tracks. The track is lined with sensors, which on impact will emit a warning sound. If a driver crosses a certain threshold with these, he does not pass the test. The assumption is that this will eliminate the vagaries o f the human component in testing. More of  these tracks are being planned and the cost is currently billed at Rs 14 lakhs each. 

This is certainly an interesting step and will hopefully make the licencing process more transparent. Though, anecdotally, a person working on road safety, recently visited such an automated track in North India and found people already gaming the system! Apparently there was a camera blind spot and this was used to switch the driver so the applicant had someone drive proxy! One does not know whether to cry or applaud the Indian ingenuity for jugaad

Irrespective of jugaad, will such tracks ensure that each applicant is capable of driving properly, with full knowledge and understanding of the rules? Driving in traffic, especially the kind of traffic we have in India with varied types of vehicles, pedestrians, animals, and obstacles, is not easy. Nothing can replace the experience of driving on the roads. Considering we learn on the roads, why are we not tested on these same roads? Just working the gear shift, accelerator and brake is not the sum total of skills required of drivers. We need to know the rules and apply them appropriately; we need to be able to judge distances and speeds; we need to be aware of what other road users are doing or might do and make allowances; not to mention the condition of the road (potholes, speed breakers and so on). 

Ultimately a driving licence is a privilege that needs to be earned. We need a paradigm shift; officials need to stop obsessing about how many licences they issue each day and instead obsess about how many properly qualified drivers they have allowed to get behind the wheel.

 

Show me the money

In November 2016, the Committee directed Tamil Nadu to set up a non-lapsable road safety fund which would have a steady flow of money from fines/compounding fees collected from traffic violations. The Committee had noted that the Fund should not be solely dependent on budgetary allocation which may vary according to the financial constraints of the government. 

Unlike other states, Tamil Nadu had instituted a road safety fund in 2000, well before the Committee itself was formed. As per this, the Fund will consist of the receipts from spot fines and compounding fees collected in Tamil Nadu. This echoes the Committee’s directives. 

In reality, the Fund runs on the amount allocated by the State. Sources in the government tell us that the spot and compounding fees (this amount is more than the current allocation for the Fund) goto the government exchequer and are not necessarily spent on road safety. The Fund started with Rs 1 crore in its first year and over time this was increased slowly to Rs 65 crore per annum. This is, then, a budgetary allocation and not an non-lapsable fund. Responding in February 2017, to the Committee’s critique, the State Road Safety Council said that it has sent a proposal to make the Fund a non-lapsable one and is awaiting the State’s response. We continue to wait.

 

Collaboration is key

The Committee had also directed states to form the State Road Safety Council (SRSC) and District Road Safety Committees (DRSCs). These bodies would have representatives from various government departments (transport, police, health, PWD, highways, etc) as well as non-profits and consumer groups. Tamil Nadu had already issued orders in 2007 creating the state council and in 2008, creating DRSCs. While, at present, we have no information on the functioning of these bodies in the early years, in 2016, the Supreme Court Committee pulled up the state for not taking road safety seriously (Tamil Nadu was topping the country in number of crashes and was second in fatalities). The Committee notes that in 2016, the Council did not meet at all. The state’s response was to say that the Council was convened in April 2017. However, RTIs filed by us asking for the minutes of the meeting of the Council in 2017-2018 shows that the Council met in January 2015, then June 2017, and then in February 2018. The February 2018 meeting is mentioned to be the 6th meeting of the Council; so between 2007 and 2018, a grand total of 6 meetings were conducted! 

 

Adrift without an anchor

The Committee, in its November 2016 letter, notes that a Joint Transport Commissioner (JTC) assisted by a consultant has been posted to look after all road safety issues in Tamil Nadu. This is clearly inadequate to handle road safety for the state and the mechanism of collaboration with other relevant agencies (PWD, Police, Education, and Health Departments), it notes. The Committee goes on to direct that the lead agency be constituted with adequate and competent support staff and be fully functional by 30th May 2017.

The Transport Department’s response was to note that in 2011, via a Home Department notification, a Road Safety Cell within the Transport Department was formed and the state is now looking to see how this cell can be modified to meet the directions of the Committee. The cell would be the lead agency for road safety. The response also goes on to state that a Lead Agency (RSELG - Road Safety Executive Leadership Group) with senior government officials from Highways and Minor Ports, Home, Health, Education, Transport, Police, and National Highways Authority of India has been formed. This body would be chaired by the Additional Chief Secretary to Government, Highways and Minor Ports Department. So far the committee has met four times and various road safety issues have been discussed. This, of course, does not answer the question, what of the road safety cell, then? Are these the same body or different cells (one anchored in the Transport and the other in the Highways department)?

These directives from the Supreme Court Committee are extremely doable and essential. Ultimately it is a question of political will; some decisions will not be popular (with officials or the public) but need to be taken and implemented in letter and spirit if we are to come close to meeting all those grandiose deadlines we have agreed to (read the Brasilia Declaration and the Sustainable Development Goals). More importantly, do we not, as a nation, care about the completely preventable 1.5 lakh fatalities each year?