The death of four teenage students riding on the footboard of a Chennai bus in an avoidable traffic accident is a horrific reminder of the indifference that State governments display towards safe mobility of the average citizen. What stands out in the tragedy is the helplessness of students and other commuters living in the suburbs of fast-growing cities and towns. More and more people are pushed to the periphery as inner city housing becomes expensive, and they are then compelled to undertake a perilous ride everyday in crowded buses to educational institutions and places of work. At the root of the problem is grossly underfunded public transport. Bus operators, including state-owned corporations, ply outmoded vehicles that do not have doors. This is in stark contrast to the advances in safety and comfort in private vehicles: air-conditioning and seat belts are now standard in cars. Should public transport also not be upgraded? It must be emphasised that safety in public service vehicles is an extension of the right to life. If State governments choose not to invest in the infrastructure necessary for safe operation of buses, they violate this right. Ironically, in the Chennai incident, the ‘deluxe’ bus was equipped with doors and the crew apparently did not operate them, sending the students to their death. Again, unlike newer Metro systems, the Indian Railways also retain a colonial legacy: suburban train services that do not have automatic doors.
The impact of bus design on commuter safety has been empirically tested in Bangalore. Research findings published by the Journal of Public Transportation in 2010 show that low floor buses with mechanical doors significantly reduce the risk of fatalities involving passengers. The Automotive Research Association of India has published a bus body code requiring buses to have doors. In response to a public interest petition, the Madras High Court asked the Tamil Nadu authorities two years ago to examine the feasibility of providing automatic doors in all buses in the interests of safe travel. Such advice and the bus body code have been ignored, and new buses recently acquired for city operations in Tamil Nadu lack doors. The State government has a duty to explain why. Regrettably, the automotive industry has been lobbying for purchaser discretion when it comes to some safety features in buses, which in effect nullifies the technical advice in the bus code. Precious lives are at stake, and if courts interpret the fundamental rights of passengers to include safe travel, governments will be compelled to amend the Motor Vehicles rules and make it compulsory for all types of buses to have mechanical doors.