India’s roads are deadlier than ever. The high rates of death and disability expose the lack of an organised system of traffic management and safety. Road safety is no one’s responsibility. It is time to make someone accountable.

On the final day of this year’s ‘puja’ season in Chennai, a particular roadside temple near the iconic Central Railway Station had the long annual line of vehicles — vans, tempos, taxis, cars and two-wheelers — waiting for divinity to bestow blessings for safe passage over the coming year. The drivers lit camphor and ran the wheels of their flower-bedecked vehicles over lemons to propitiate the deity. To the believers, such worship is critical to ensure an accident-free year ahead. Similar temples abound in almost all parts of the country, along highways and mountain roads, in cities and towns.

Divine ‘insurance’ is important in a country with the world’s worst road safety record. In 2011, a staggering 142,485 people were killed and 511,394 injured in motor vehicle accidents. The national vehicle count is rising at a compounded annual growth rate of close to ten per cent. All road-related systems are notoriously unresponsive to the crisis - State governments have not invested much in licensing, enforcement tools, personnel, and road engineering. Accident investigation is rudimentary, and corruption is rampant.

Road safety experts say India is out of step with international practice in more ways than one. It is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Road Traffic 1968, although it signed the earlier 1949 treaty on the subject. The Convention prescribes detailed actions to be carried out by contracting countries in the interests of safety of people, and avoidance of loss to property. On the other hand, India is a signatory to the 1968 Convention of Road Signs and Signals, although it has done little to use a system of standardised signage nationwide.

Land use changes that have a bearing on road safety - such as allowing big malls and public facilities to open - happen in isolation, and it is left to the traffic police, who have no background in engineering, to take charge of safe movement of people, as an afterthought.

An Amendment Bill to update the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 was passed by the Rajya Sabha in May 2012. But it has not made much progress. Rohit Baluja, president of the Institute of Road Traffic Education says, “It awaits presentation in the Lok Sabha. This Bill has stressed on higher fines as well as action against drunken driving, and use of mobile phones. But the Rules of Road Regulations and other important Rules of the central Motor Vehicles Rules which primarily deal with safety and discipline of road traffic have not yet been put up for amendment.”

A ‘toothless’ body

The National Road Safety Council, which the Centre is touting as a solution, is seen as a ‘toothless’ body, making periodic cosmetic recommendations and unable to achieve concrete results. What is more, the plethora of organisations dealing with creation of infrastructure, urban planning, traffic law enforcement, highway development, public health and insurance work in compartments. The Sundar Committee on Road Safety and Traffic Management constituted by the Centre noted in its report in 2007, that in spite of the death toll, there was no major national control scheme comparable to scourges such as tuberculosis, malaria, filaria, kala-azar, dengue and HIV/AIDS.

The response of the Centre and the States to the crisis - dubbed the silent tsunami on Indian roads in one research study - is incremental at best. This is in spite of the fact that the number of registered motor vehicles grew from just over 21.4 million in 1991, to more than 141 million in just two decades. Driving licences are even now handed out at RTOs with little or no testing. Even metro cities do not have scientific testing facilities. Enforcement is patchy at best and frequently corrupt. Municipal authorities have virtually no liability for badly maintained roads and footpaths that cause mishaps. Enforcement personnel show high tolerance towards drunk driving, what with government shops vending liquor in some States.

Vulnerable users

This situation prevails in spite of the fact that 72 per cent of the registered vehicles are ‘vulnerable’ two-wheeler riders, who are powering the engines of economic growth. Their share in the total number of accidents is the highest, at 23.7; they also contribute to their own risk of injury by not wearing standard helmets. Pedestrians and cyclists, arguably the most vulnerable classes of road users, suffer silently as they are marginalised in policy (see separate story).

The World Health Organisation considers a mixture of high-speed motorised traffic and vulnerable road users as a major risk factor. Yet, that is precisely the situation prevailing in India. National Crime Records Bureau data show that Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh accounted for the maximum road accidents in 2011.

In response to a Public Interest Litigation filed in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, the A.P. Road Safety Authority submitted that there was a one per cent decline in road accidents in 2011 over the previous year - 44,598 in 2010, reduced to 44,165 in 2011. The number of fatalities fell about three per cent, from 15,664 in 2010 to 15,165 in 2011.

Kolkata has witnessed a rise in accidents. In 2011, the number of casualties in road accidents increased by 18 per cent compared to the previous year, police records show. While 418 people died in road accidents from January to December 2011, such accidents claimed 354 lives in 2010. Of the casualties, about 58 per cent (244 of the 418) were pedestrians killed. Walkers also comprised 51.5 percent of 2,420 persons injured in the city.

Studies indicate that Indian legal compensation mechanisms are inefficient because courts vary the compensation for similar cases; even the same case is awarded different compensation on appeal.

One study by the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Department of Economics in 2009 concluded that although liability laws had been strengthened over time, their application was inconsistent by the courts, defeating the objective of compensation under tort law.

The real value of fines has also depreciated over time. In August this year, the Supreme Court awarded higher compensation in two accident cases, including that of a woman who had been rendered paraplegic in a mishap - from Rs. 4 lakhs, to Rs. 34 lakhs.

The Bureau of Police Research and Development has commissioned a project to study the prevalent systems in 20 States, covering key cities as well. This project undertaken by the IRTE is expected to provide insights next year on what needs to be done. “We are facing a crisis much larger than terrorism,” says Mr. Baluja.

(With inputs from M.L. Melly Maitreyi in Hyderabad and Shiv Sahay Singh in Kolkata)

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