The tragic death of Tamil Nadu Minister N. Mariyam Pichai in an accident on a National Highway in the State should serve as a reminder that safety on our roads needs to be given the highest priority by governments as well as the public at an all-India level. The latest data for fatal accidents presented to Parliament by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways are for 2008, and they are frightening. A staggering 1,19,860 people perished in mishaps that year. The Law Commission of India has pointed out that the national and state highways account for nearly half of all road accidents. In spite of the shocking levels of death and disability, the central government has only been inching forward with reform. It is nothing short of a scandal that in a country witnessing 10 per cent annual growth in vehicles, and boasting a network of 3.3 million km of roads, the Bill for creation of a statutory National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board has been meandering through Parliament. Such an agency is vital to set standards for road design, inspect existing roads, and investigate accidents scientifically. If the death toll is to be brought down, its formation cannot be delayed any longer.
That India's Motor Vehicles Act lags far behind the needs of a fast-motorising society is painfully evident from its road safety record. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture recognised this and suggested several modifications in the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2007 to strengthen enforcement and reduce the trauma of making a compensation claim. The proposed amendments are important and need to be brought in quickly — but the stark reality is that even the existing law is not uniformly implemented by the police. It will take a ‘zero tolerance' policy towards the most common transgressions — dangerous and reckless driving; disregard for traffic rules; jumping red lights; driving under the influence of liquor; failing to use seatbelts; and driving without a helmet — to bring about a visible change. It is also true that disregard for labour welfare leads to accidents. Many professional drivers are forced to work longer hours than desirable from a safety standpoint. This can result in their being asleep at the wheel, with horrific consequences for passengers and for themselves. On the other hand, some drivers cause accidents through sheer recklessness. The response to this has to be the unsparing enforcement of rules. In the case of errant drivers, the Supreme Court has endorsed a deterrent approach in Dalbir Singh vs. State of Haryana. Enforcement, good engineering, and education are the need of the hour.