In a Twitter post on India's road safety conditions, Atul Gawande, a U.S.-based surgeon, writer, and public health researcher, noted that traffic accident deaths now exceed fatal malaria cases. In fact, there were 125,660 accident fatalities during 2009, the latest year for which data was presented in Parliament a fortnight ago. Yet the country lacks a sustained effort to reduce road-related deaths and disability. The State governments, which enforce motor vehicles rules, and the Centre, which is administratively responsible for road safety through the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, have clearly failed to respond to the crisis. They must get serious at least with the new goal proposed by the Ministry's working groups: halving the number of deaths by 2020. It is an ambitious target, given the weak state of the determinants of road safety — education, engineering, and enforcement. The working groups have submitted many actionable points, and a prolonged campaign must follow. The best time to make the start is the New Year, which begins with Road Safety Week in January.
One major lacuna, as underscored by these groups, is the absence of a technically competent national statutory agency. The current advisory body, the National Road Safety Council, is simply not equal to the task. Moreover, there would be little value in multiplying such panels at the State and district levels, if they do not have the authority to pursue the safety agenda. It is worth pointing out that the Sundar Committee of the Ministry recommended almost five years ago the formation of a National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board. Legislation to create one has run into rough weather in Parliament as several amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act are pending. What can be done immediately, however, is to strengthen engineering and enforcement. With few exceptions, Indian roads have poor safety engineering. In particular, they do not accommodate the needs of pedestrians, bicycles, and other slow-moving vehicles. This gross neglect was flagged for remedial action by the Sundar Committee, but little action has followed. In the area of enforcement, amendments to the M.V. Act seeking to professionalise enforcement and enhance penalties for serious offences — such as driving under the influence of liquor, rash and negligent driving, and overloading of commercial vehicles — await approval by Parliament. Also, driver-licensing remains the weakest link in road safety. Here, State governments have done little to reform an archaic and scandalously corrupt system. What is needed is a ‘zero tolerance' policy towards everything that makes Indian roads deadly.