A young woman fell off a two-wheeler as it hit a speed breaker - a day before she was to wed. Does anyone feel guilty?

A doctor calls to say there is a young woman in the government hospital in Chennai today who is brain dead. The story is incredibly saddening.

The woman had gone to get ‘mehndi’ (henna decoration) done a day before her wedding, and was returning home on a two-wheeler riding pillion, with her hands held out to dry.

At a location not immediately known in the city, she reportedly was thrown off when the bike went over a speed breaker. The unspeakably terrible tragedy had occurred. The bride-to-be was declared brain dead, said the doctor.

There are many such avoidable tragedies occurring in India, most of which are not reported in the media. They become cold statistics, as cold as the people who have died in the road accidents. They fail to move us enough to demand safe roads.

Many of these deaths would never take place, if the average citizen took public safety seriously. The Corporation of Chennai and suburban municipalities and panchayats put speed breakers in place, often in consultation with the traffic police.

To be sure, all roads need some traffic calming in Chennai and other Indian cities and towns, because of the semi-literacy of the average Indian driver. Children, senior citizens and the disabled can never use the roads in the absence of such restraints on mad vehicular movement.

Yet, there is a serious disconnect between official agencies that are in charge of our road infrastructure, and the standards that they are supposed to follow. For one thing, most speed breakers are not of uniform dimensions. They are often put up by unlettered workers with little supervision.

Contrary to public perception, the yellow and black speed breakers that are off-the-shelf, pre-fabricated, and capable of being simply bolted-on without delay are not big enough to throw someone off a two-wheeler. They do give the careless driver a jolt, but they are not crude humps made out of debris and bitumen, rising more than a foot.

What is more, the speed breakers in India are invariably not painted, and are invisible in the dark.

In one case squarely dealing with death caused by a speed breaker that was not visible and had not been painted by the civic body, in Kumudben Sureshchandra vs. Jamnagar Municipal Corporation, the Gujarat High Court held in 1996 that the municipal corporation was at fault for not maintaining the speed breaker and demarcating it.

It is useful to quote the judgment here: “If speed breakers of a disproportionate height, size or design are erected on a road where the vehicles are likely to move in speed, the same is likely to result into heavy damages, both to the vehicles as well as to the travellers thereon. That is particularly true in case of two wheelers which are more prone to get slipped. Therefore, a scientific study of the speed breaking system is required to be undertaken.”

In spite of such judicial decisions, and the absence of suitable tort mechanisms in India there is no compulsion on our Municipal authorities and those in charge of public safety to introduce zero defect road engineering. Their impunity only strengthens the cynical view that in India, life is cheap, and our commitment to public safety is wafer thin.

Much of the blame lies with those who are literate enough to know the consequences of poor governance, but prefer to remain spectators. There are few NGOs dedicated to fighting civic sloth when it comes to safety, and corruption, which enables the authorities to put up speed breakers which have no markings, no lights overhead to alert motorists and no traffic signs to warn them in advance.

A simple Right to Information Act petition to the Commissioner of the Corporation or the Corporation Zonal Officer concerned would bring about some accountability in the neighbourhood, but the TV-addicted middle class has no time even to send that.

The traffic police also have a knee-jerk approach to enforcing the helmet rule, which could prevent brain injury. Women are considered automatically exempt from wearing helmets. Do their skulls react differently to impact?

On Tuesday evening, the family of the young brain dead woman was contemplating the donation of her organs. But even that appeared to be a distant prospect, since her condition was deteriorating.