Two recent and successive bus accidents which led to the loss of more than 50 lives in charred vehicles, have yet again raised questions about standards and practices of bus body design. These unfortunate incidents not only bring forth a compelling sense of urgency to review the safety of public vehicles, but also expose the state’s inexplicable reluctance to implement regulatory measures. It is only in recent years that vehicle manufacturers in India have started to build buses on chassis specially designed for them. However, this shift has not necessarily translated into better design standards or practices. In 2001, the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI), which felt that existing designs were hardly optimal and safe, published the Code of Practice for Bus Body Design and Approval. Unfortunately, the Central government, which requested the ARAI to develop this code, has not yet come up with an implementation date. Critical norms such as providing an adequate number of emergency exits with breakable safety glass, tools to force them open when needed, unhindered access passages for passengers to move, and minimum dimensions for doors, remain on paper. In the absence of legally enforceable norms, bus builders, it appears, continue to flout standards with impunity.

The government has also failed to pursue another related regulation. In 2007, it notified an order to make accreditation of bus body builders mandatory. This order enabled the authorities to accredit fabricators according to their capabilities, such as availability of competent personnel and manufacturing facilities. It intended to ensure that only accredited operators were qualified to undertake specific aspects of fabrication and design. With the government failing to set any cut-off date, the process of accreditation never fully took off, and only a fraction of the fabricators have been assessed. Apart from faulty design, driver fatigue is a reason for accidents. Bus drivers often work long hours and transport operators fail to limit their work schedule to reasonable periods. When faced with a similar situation, the European Commission mandated that buses must adopt innovative measures such as digital tachographs that record speed, driving time, and rest periods of the driver. Inspectors regularly reviewed the data and enforced a better system. There is a lesson in this for India. Another concern is improper road alignment. Government studies show that many inter-city roads need redesigning to enhance safety. Industry and transport operators should adhere fully to safety standards — and the state should ensure they are enforced.

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