The Centre’s decision to provide seed capital to each State during the Twelfth Plan to start a road safety fund is a positive step. As a populous country with an extensive but mostly broken road network, and high volume vehicle sales, India has been remarkably indifferent to the effects of motorisation: 142,485 people killed and more than half a million injured in 2011. Mortality and injury in absolute terms have been rising over the years, and injury is grossly underreported. The litany of problems confronting road safety is discussed piously in several forums, particularly during annual government-led Road Safety Week events. Yet, when it comes to systemic course correction that will strengthen education, enforcement, engineering and emergency care, our policymakers have been found seriously wanting. The carnage on Indian roads has exacted a heavy toll, and is today a full-blown public health crisis. It would thus be naive to expect a new safety fund alone to bring about dramatic change when there is not much action on fundamentals. But the model that the Centre proposes is promising. The sanctioned fund will, for one thing, be non-lapsable and constantly augmented with 50 per cent of the penalty amounts realised from violators of the Motor Vehicles Act. State governments can spend the money only on area-specific activities approved by Road Safety Councils.
Two years ago, the Centre approved a road safety policy and committed itself to reducing death and disability caused by road accidents. Disappointingly, though, it did not follow up its promise with speedy action. In May this year, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways acknowledged that it had not been able to legislate a National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board, after the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture recommended the withdrawal of a 2010 Bill on the subject because it was not comprehensive enough. Among the issues the panel underscored was the need to eliminate corruption. That challenge remains, and must be met. Equally, a new safety paradigm focussed on the plight of vulnerable road users is needed to help walkers — children and the disabled in particular. Road projects must be approved only when they conform at least to Indian Roads Congress standards for pedestrians. The National Urban Transport Policy 2006 affirmed support for people-centric development, but road building unabashedly favours motorised vehicles even now. By credible estimates, pedestrians and non-motorised transport users suffer the most in India. The new fund can start by working to reverse this trend. That would make the roads safer for walkers and bicycle riders who form the majority of users.