Economic growth has set off a wave of motorisation in India, but in the absence of a comprehensive approach to road safety, accidents are killing or maiming a large number of people every year. Data for 2010 presented to Parliament in the last session show that 134,513 people died in road accidents, an increase from 119,860 just two years earlier. The available statistics for accident-related injuries are grossly low and far from complete, due to underreporting. Quite simply, India’s love of vehicles over the past quarter century has been so intense that it has strained the capacity of States and Union Territories to intervene. Governments, on their part, are approaching this serious issue with token gestures, rather than launching systemic reform. It is wholly appropriate, therefore, that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture in the Rajya Sabha has taken up detailed examination of all aspects of road safety. This exercise, following the panel’s 2008 report on the Motor Vehicles Act, must lead to far-going change. It is vital, because it encompasses legal and institutional frameworks, programmes, public health interventions, compensation and human resource development for road safety.
The task before the Standing Committee is to review the expert recommendations and international best practices that have so far been ignored by governments, and produce a fresh blueprint for change. Five years have passed since the Sundar Committee on road safety and traffic management called for a scientific accident investigation system, and formation of a single empowered board for safety. Sadly, that has remained an elusive goal. Such an agency should ideally be responsible for targets — starting with a reduction in the annual death toll. Policymakers should also look at pointers on safety available from transport research. A study conducted by IIT-Delhi in Bangalore showed that low-floor bus design and automatic doors reduced the risk of death and injury to passengers, since 92 per cent of people who had a fatal fall from a bus were entering or exiting. Such designs must therefore be made mandatory for buses across the country. To aid pedestrians, civic agencies should be compelled to provide usable footpaths of sound technical standards, and regulated crossings, in all cities and towns. Failure to do so should attract stiff penalties. Segregated pathways for cyclists are now internationally acknowledged for their role in safety, and need to be introduced through re-engineering of urban spaces. Overall, road safety has to become a key national mission that invites active stakeholder participation.