India’s roads have acquired a reputation, quite deservedly, of being the most dangerous in the world. Rapid motorisation and fast-paced economic activity over several years have been accompanied by an annual toll of nearly 140,000 accident fatalities; injuries are estimated to be 15 to 20 times the number of deaths. In absolute numbers, more people die in road accidents in India than in any other country. Apart from the human dimension of the tragedy, avoidable death and disability seriously affect economic progress — by some estimates, 3 per cent of GDP is lost in a year due to the carnage. The recent decision of the Supreme Court to appoint a three-member committee to suggest ways to prevent road accidents and ensure accountability offers some hope that a new government at the Centre will be compelled to address the issue as an emergency. It is not as if suggestions for improvements for enhanced safety have not been proposed earlier. The Sundar Committee constituted by the Centre called for an apex agency to be created to assess all aspects of road safety, and to address the lacuna in scientific accident investigation. Although the recommendation was made seven years ago, it has failed to take off. Indians are travelling more miles per capita today, and are at high risk for injury or worse.
Unsafe transport, including services operated by government agencies, are a major part of the problem. Several ghastly accidents involving public transport vehicles have been reported, but the State governments involved have shown little sense of accountability. They routinely challenge even claims for compensation. Their response to the need for improved infrastructure has been woefully weak. In its recent report, the National Transport Development Policy Committee headed by Rakesh Mohan suggested that national, State and local-level institutions be set up, with responsibility to address the issue of safety. There is an urgent need to form these committees, and appoint professionals to them. They must be empowered to upgrade driver-licensing practices, road systems, public lighting and signage. Accident investigation, which remains a neglected area, requires a thorough overhaul, and CCTVs can help determine the cause of mishaps. Also, the neglect of the public district hospital network in most States, and the high cost of treatment at private hospitals affect access to good trauma care for accident victims. The right to life demands that the Central and State governments provide medical facilities at a proximate institution free of cost to all. The Supreme Court panel must give road accidents the status of a public health issue that has acquired alarming proportions. Reform to improve road safety cannot be delayed any longer.