One of the smallest and remotest districts in the State is proving to be a model for increased public awareness of road safety

The black sport utility vehicle was sweeping around the bends climbing up towards Sultan Battery in Wayanad when a motorcycle swerved into its path. Both vehicles braked hard and the bike skidded onto the gravel by the roadside, throwing its rider and a six-year-old child to the ground.

Tommy Mathew, driving his autorickshaw, was the first person to reach the spot. He picked up the child and helped the shaken father to his feet. The man was bleeding from injuries on his right leg. The child was in shock but appeared unhurt otherwise. Moving the bike to the roadside he helped both father and child into his autorickshaw and took them to a missionary-run hospital nearby.

“I have been driving autos in Wayanad for 22 years,” Tommy told me. “For most of that time, I kept away from getting involved when accidents happened. There were just too many hassles with the police and the courts and the hospitals.”

Turning point

What changed was the Regional Transport Office in Wayanad. Ajit Kumar, the Regional Transport Officer, found that the public often considered auto drivers to be a menace. But Ajit found a number of well educated young men (and some women as well in parts of the district) who wanted to change this image. He decided to bring them together and organise “classes” for them on road safety.

The road safety classes grew to sessions each week with auto drivers in different parts of the district taking part. Senior police officers, lawyers and panchayat representatives speak to them every Wednesday.

A priority for the road safety volunteer group of auto drivers is to have training in first aid, as they are often the first to help when accidents take place. Ajit has contacted government and private sector doctors to help train his volunteers in first aid and trauma responses.

“I want to provide all members with a simple booklet on first aid and trauma care that they can carry with them in their autos. They can also help when a child falls from a tree or a housewife gets a burn in the kitchen,” said Ajit.

There was a simple solution to the problem of people talking on mobile phones while driving, or rude behaviour towards passengers on buses. Sign boards were placed in buses inviting passengers to report such occurrences to the public relations officer of the motor vehicles department. This is probably done in other places as well, but the difference in Wayanad is the speed of the response.

Calls and SMS from passengers are promptly acted upon and the bus staff are met at the destination by inspectors who coach and counsel them. On a recent bus trip, regular passengers confirmed a marked improvement in the situation.

Reaching out

The RTO in Wayanad also uses the video conferencing network in the district to interact with panchayats, students, women’s self-help groups, employees of driving schools, tribal “promoters,” Accredited Social Health Activists and others in the district each week on road safety. “Students often ask us why talking on cell phones while driving is so dangerous,” said Ajit, confirming that the basic principles of road safety needs constant reiteration.

Refresher training for drivers of public transport services is conducted and pre-driving test lessons have been made compulsory. School bus drivers are given safety lessons before the reopening of schools in the district.

“Our volunteers help children line up and get in and out of school buses safely each day in Meppadi,” said Kunju Mohammed, an auto driver from Meppadi. A group of blood donors has also been identified in the same place, so that in an emergency, donors can be mobilised. All these initiatives have come from the members of the voluntary group.

An interesting offshoot is the non-resistance to enforcement action like the suspension of driving licences for traffic offences or curbs on tipper lorries not to operate without speed governors. There has been no protest against frequent roadside checks or other actions. On the contrary, the public and politicians have asked that such enforcement measures be continued even more stringently.

Wayanad is one of the smallest and probably the remotest district in the State. In some ways it used to be considered one of the most backward areas. But change like this is showing us a new face of Wayanad that can prove to be a model for other places not only in Kerala but other parts of India too. The secret to this is in empowering people with knowledge and creating partnerships that help them find solutions to their own problems.

(Gopalan Balagopal is a retired civil servant. E-mail: gbalagopal.wayanad@gmail.com)

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