Last year, Sunday, the 22nd of November marked 25 years of the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims (WDR) since it was first commemorated in 1995 by the European Federation of Road Traffic Victims (FEVR). It was subsequently adopted by the United Nations in 2005. The event is a solemn occasion to pay respect to victims of road crashes and to stand in solidarity with families who have lost their loved ones.
The WDR however, should go above and beyond functioning as a day of tribute. It should be a day of retrospection and greater reflection, to see where India stands in terms of road safety as a country and what more needs to be done to put a stop to this huge loss of lives. Anything less would be an injustice to the millions who have died on our roads.
We know that the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of halving the number of global deaths and injuries by 2020 has not been met. India ranks first in road crashes globally with 1,51,113 lives lost in 2019. Our government’s policies focused on building road networks over the years while safety remained compromised. As per a Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MORTH) study, the total estimated socio economic cost of road crashes reported by India in 2018 was Rs 1,47,114 crores.
The government has acknowledged that they have not been able to flatten the curve of road crashes. A business-as-usual approach has meant that innocent lives have been lost at shocking rates and that this trend will continue to worsen as a fast growing population and a fast growing middle class take up private road transport as a preferred mode of travel. It is therefore imperative to bring the issue of road safety under the spotlight. There is enough research on improving road safety and the United Nations under its Decade of Action for Road Safety has evolved a five pillar framework to reduce road crashes and fatalities. Moreover we have experience from High Income Countries (HICs) who have been successful in reducing road crash fatalities significantly. The suggestions given below, when followed through by the government, will help to improve our road safety record.
Need for road safety authority
India is a federal state, and road safety is a shared responsibility of both the Centre and the state. The Motor Vehicles Amendment Act (2019) has laid the framework for a national road safety board to function as the nodal agency. The Supreme Court committee on road safety has directed states to set up a state level agency that will coordinate the activities of different departments from health to transport to road infrastructure. Kerala has shown the way through the Kerala Road Safety Authority Act, 2007, to set up such an agency. This road safety agency has powers to administer a road safety fund and also ensure coordination between various departments as road safety solutions need to be multi pronged and multi sectoral in implementation.
Need for dependable data
Reliable information systems on road crashes are important to find the right intervention to prevent recurrence. Integrated Road Accident Database (iRAD) Project by the MoRTH with World Bank assistance is a welcome step to this end. The idea is to have the police and first responders record road crash details using their mobile phones when they reach the crash location. This would help in road crash analysis and enable appropriate remedial action.
Appropriate mechanism to deliver efficient care to the injured
Road traffic injuries are a significant contributor to death and disability in India. Experience from HICs shows that efficient trauma care systems can reduce deaths by 20–25% and the impact of severe injuries by 40%. Tamil Nadu has recorded significant improvement in saving lives over the last few years by revamping their emergency care system. This needs to be done across India.
Streamlined funding and accountability
Some states, including Tamil Nadu have a road safety fund. In Tamil Nadu, this fund receives budgetary allocation each year, currently standing at Rs. 65 crores. This is disbursed to the district road safety committees (DRSC). There are multiple sources of funding for road safety related work; but these are not streamlined, making it difficult to estimate the amount of money coming in, the timeliness of it and how well it is being spent. The MVAA mandates scientific investigation of crashes, road safety audits and much more. These can only be driven forward by increased and committed funding by the government.
CAG through its Right to Information applications to 32 districts in Tamil Nadu in 2019 found that some districts received the funds as late as September/October. This means that the funds need to be spent within the remaining six months by March of next year which can be difficult to say the least. This could lead to poorly thought out decisions and ineffective strategies to contain loss of lives.
Mechanism to improve enforcement of road rules
Enforcement of laws has always been difficult in India, with problems around adequate staffing and capacity of enforcement agencies. Many states are constantly struggling to ensure they have all the resources needed and this needs a well-thought plan - both for the short and long term.
On the ground enforcement of the road rules by law enforcement agencies is critical to obtaining quick results. Greater visibility of policing ensures greater compliance to road rules.
Role of non-governmental organisations, media, citizens
While the government’s role is of great importance, others like NGOs and the media, have a role to play as well. CAG, along with several other organisations in India, have been working with the government to strengthen legislation and this has finally come about with the Motor Vehicles Amendment Act, 2019. This, of course, is not enough. Much more needs to be done and towards this, we continue to work with the government, nationally and at the state-level, in supporting implementation of the amended Act.
Each of us, as a citizen and a road user, must know the road rules and obey them at all times so we do not become a statistic. We too, can hold the government accountable by asking questions and demanding that the government take swift action to stop this unforgivable loss of lives on the road.
Never forget the victims
In this long journey to road safety, we must always remember those impacted by crashes. Road crash victims and their families face a lot of hardship - mental, emotional, and financial - over a long time. There is a crying need to set up an institution to provide help and support to such people. This could be in the form of information on issues related to compensation, medical assistance, rehabilitation of the injured, etc.
By the time we reach 50 years of WDR let us hope that India would have made significant progress in reducing road crash fatalities and become an example to the world.