How civilised is a city that cannot ensure a safe ride for its students to school?

When you live in a State with the highest number of road accidents as a percentage of the country's total, you must be very afraid. During 2011, for which statistics have been published by the National Crime Records Bureau, Tamil Nadu accounted for 15 per cent of all accidents in India. Very scary.

News of the horrific death of twelve year old K. Abirami going to school in Chennai just after re-opening, brimming with hope and the joy of riding a new bicycle, has shaken everyone. A sewage tanker snuffed out her life.

Some months ago, students riding in an MTC bus on OMR were killed by a lorry. The problem was that the bus had not closed its doors. If children cannot go to school safely, what is the level of civilisatiion in that city? Read what parents and school heads have to say about it here.

Elsewhere, a group of rural students who were given a free ride in a milk van also died violently, when the vehicle collided with a bus near Pudukottai. The van is among the new crop of small and medium vehicles that have hit the road in ever increasing numbers, but driven by people who are barely literate. When competing with heavy vehicles on smooth highways, they create deadly conditions for everyone.

So far as the city is concerned - that would include any urban centre - the only way to improve safety is to engineer and enforce. It is now widely believed that education on road rules is not the best answer. Even educated, 'trained' car drivers and two-wheeler riders care little for others on the road, particularly vulnerable users such as children, the elderly and the disabled. They hate to stop at pedestrian crossings, obviously emulating MTC bus and autorickshaw drivers. They all need to be disciplined, every one of them.

In Chennai or Coimbatore or Madurai, it would be much more effective to put up physical restraints on the road in the form of effective speed breakers, than hope that drivers who receive pamphlets will behave themselves. There is naturally a hue and cry about a large number of speed breakers on city roads. But for a large group of lawless drivers, especially when there is no policeman present, there can be no more effective restraint. The only requirement to be met is that the speed breakers are effective, made to engineering standards, and well demarcated with signs.

Enforcement is the other tool. Here, we have problems because of the way it is carried out. Police personnel are almost entirely focused on checking the papers of two-wheeler riders on arterial roads. They have little time to check whether commercial vehicles such as share autos, small vans, and buses and trucks have valid papers, and are driven safely.

More than a decade ago, when water scarcity hit Chennai, Metrowater began to operate hundreds of lucrative water tanker supply trips. They were often driven by functionally illiterate youth, and there was little if any oversight or enforcement. It resulted in a carnage on the city roads. One woman who was taking her child to school on a bicycle in Valluvar Kottam area was killed by a tanker. Many others died including two-wheeler riders. Our Police learnt nothing from it all, it would appear, although Metrowater made some small changes to the design of the tankers (to reduce the probability that someone would get trapped under the rear wheels if there is a hit from the side).

Are all these deaths of the children and others inevitable as we make progress towards a particular model of development? Is this the premium we must pay to have an ever-rising number of vehicles on roads, and often driven by maniacal individuals whose philosophy is nothing more than 'might is right'? Should we take our Traffic Police seriously?