Road safety is the inert virtue behind an efficient traffic management system

Road safety is not a standalone phenomenon. Roads are unsafe because of shortcomings in road and traffic engineering, old and non-standard codes of traffic control devices, poor driver training and assessment, outdated legislations and a poor enforcement system. When accidents occur, the possibility of minor injuries translating to serious injuries and serious injuries graduating to fatalities depends on a vacuity in information systems, victim transportation and trauma care.

Today we see a glimpse of light after remaining in a dark tunnel for 67 years since Independence — a government has assured its citizens of their right to be safe. Union Minister Gopinath Munde’s untimely death in a road accident has put road safety reforms in fast-forward motion. The most ideal condolence by the government and other stakeholders for Munde would not be in initiating any knee-jerk reforms but in committing towards building the missing capacity in all domains of a safe traffic management system.

Though the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways is the nodal ministry for road safety management, the issue is a multipronged and shared responsibility of many ministries — Home, Health and Family Welfare, Urban Development, Law and Justice, Heavy Industries, Human Resource Development, Environment, Petroleum, Defence, Planning and Finance, among others.

Strong political will

To begin with, a strong political will is required, and the most effective initiation needs to be from the Prime Minister. An appropriate example is that of France. Notable progress has been made since 2002, a landmark year in terms of road safety policy in the country. In the wake of a personal statement by President Jacques Chirac to initiate a system of capacity building with accountability, the number of road deaths in France fell from 7,720 to 5,232 (a reduction of 32.5 per cent) between 2002 and 2005. This trend has been continuing.

The number of recorded road deaths in India — 1,40,000 annually — is the highest in the world. In addition, an estimated 2.2 million people are seriously injured on roads.

Road safety is the inert virtue behind an efficient traffic management system. Safety is the manifestation in each of the components of traffic management which includes the domains of traffic engineering with the codes and standards thereof, vehicle regulation, elements and methodology of driver training and assessment, traffic enforcement, public awareness and post crash management.

Diagnostic tools

In order to diagnose the problems leading to unsafe roads, the most important is scientific investigation of road accidents. This is our weakest area today — that we are unable to know the causes and consequences of road accidents. Policemen who investigate crashes are neither professionally trained, nor do they possess the basic tools to collect evidence, and analyse and reconstruct the events leading to the crash. This is evident from the fact that the media has to invite a host of persons as experts to present their views on high-profile accidents rather than depending on probes by the police.

We hope that the Modi government will introspect areas of capacity building on a countrywide basis (and not just in the capital) by updating traffic legislations and codes of practice, build capacity of police training in traffic enforcement and accident investigation. It is crucial to introduce the science of traffic engineering to each and every road authority.

The process of change should be based upon indigenous research and verified practices that are applicable to the needs of the country. This demands a paradigm shift from the ‘dependence upon consultancies’ approach.

Building a robust Indian economy is the new government’s agenda. It is therefore important to mention that transport is the basis of sustainable development in any economy and for this, investing in safe traffic management system is vital. Therefore, capacity building in a safe traffic management system will contribute directly to building the economy of India.

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways should initiate the process of road safety management by first building the capacity of the department. By taking lead from transport departments of successful governments such as the Department for Transport, U.K., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S., and the Swedish Transport Administration (Trafikverket), the Ministry should deliberate on creating the government’s own expertise and knowledge base in all areas of legislation, transport planning, traffic engineering, traffic enforcement, driver training and education, post-crash management, as well as integration of road transport with rail, inland waterways (as has been announced), maritime shipping and air traffic. These sub-departments with their expertise would be able support all States and Union Territories towards building their capacity as well.

(G.K. Pillai is a former Home Secretary and Rohit Baluja is president, Institute of Road Traffic Education.)

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