Accident rates have been on an upward trend in the city for a long time now

Yet another edition of Road Safety Week, the 23rd year in a row, came and went, largely unnoticed. In the middle of the week, last year's road accident fatality figures started trickling in, and the number of persons getting killed or maimed on the city's roads had risen… yet again.

This paradox of awareness campaigns coexisting with record accident rates has been the trend in the city for a long time now. The official line is that a rising accident rate is a phenomenon witnessed in nearly all Third World countries.

As roads get better and more people are able to afford vehicles with high pick-up acceleration, the number of accidents increases. Accident deaths are essentially a “cost of development” and Chennai, akin to many other Indian cities, is in a “transition phase”, they say.

Experts, on the other hand, say that the sheer number of people who die due to road accidents each year is alarming and many lives could easily be saved through effective intervention.

M.K.Subramanian of the Automobile Association of Southern India says that there should be greater sensitivity to the fact that people who get killed are not a mere statistic. “Accident-prone areas must be identified each year and traffic police jurisdictions that account for the most number of fatalities must be held accountable. At the ground level, traffic enforcement is unfortunately either seen as a ritual or as an exercise of authority, rather than as a preventive tool and a means to educate road users.”

He says: “We may keep talking about traffic education, but it does not happen inside seminar halls. It has to happen on the road in real-life situations. You can't change behaviour just by issuing challans. Record fine collection is no success at all if it has not resulted in fewer people getting killed,” Mr. Subramanian adds.

A successful example exists in Chennai's own neighbourhood. In 2011, Bangalore recorded the lowest number of fatal traffic accidents (727) in a decade. Overall number of accidents also dropped to pre-2002 levels. M.A. Saleem, Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic and Internal Security), Bangalore, says that Chennai's 1,455 victims in 2011 is a “huge number”.

He attributes Bangalore's success to the ability to track repeat offenders through a hand-held Blackberry system that was introduced in 2010. Chennai deployed its own version of an e-challan system last year. “We also pooled our resources and specifically went after drunk driving and overspeeding cases,” Mr.Saleem says.

Bangalore's fine collection from traffic offences in 2011 was Rs.50 crore, which is several times that of Chennai.

Since repeat offenders were monitored, the police were able to suspend 844 drivers' licences and cancel over 260 of them. On the other hand, hardly a few licences are cancelled in Chennai.

A.Veeraraghavan, Transportation Engineering Professor, IIT-Madras, says that driver licensing is the biggest problem that has been left completely unaddressed. “Over 1,000 new drivers' licences are issued in Chennai each day. Many of them turn out to be bad drivers. The system of licensing has to be taken out of government hands and given to a professional agency that would be in a better position to test and evaluate.”

He adds that enforcement has to be tightened between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. and midnight, or after the morning and evening rush hours, since most accidents happen during that period.

Sanjay Arora, Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic) admits that observing road safety weeks has had “limited impact”.

“Of all the two-wheeler fatalities, data shows 95 per cent were not wearing a helmet, and this has been consistent for the last 2-3 years. There are serious attitudinal problems. Mere campaigns may not be able to change it.”

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