Road accidents in India kill more people than some epidemics, but the Central and the State governments refuse to see it for what it is — a national crisis. The antiquated traffic management and transportation system resulted in 1,50,000 deaths and left more than half a million injured last year, affirming the country’s status as among the riskiest in the world for road users. Significantly, the counts for deaths and injuries in accidents are viewed as less than accurate. The ‘Road Safety in India’ status report 2015 from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, says injuries requiring hospitalisation are likely to be underestimated by a factor of four and for all injuries by a factor of 20. For everyone undertaking a road journey, the risk of a fatal accident has been rising steadily: absolute fatalities in 2014 showed a 6 per cent average annual growth rate compared to 1970 figures. Data also show that more than half of those killed last year were in the productive age group of 15 to 34, pointing to a calamitous loss of young lives. This is a public health emergency that requires immediate action. One of the most productive measures to bring down accidents is zero tolerance enforcement. Strong policing reduces the risk for vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and two-wheeler riders, who must be compelled to wear helmets.
In spite of fast-paced motorisation, India does not have a scientific accident investigation agency. Nine years have passed since the Sundar Committee on Road Safety and Traffic Management recommended the creation of a safety board through legislation. Under the archaic Motor Vehicles Act and the Indian Penal Code, the police adopt simplistic methods to determine ‘driver fault’, rather than look at composite factors including bad road design and failure of civic agencies to maintain infrastructure while fixing responsibility for accidents. It is unlikely that the proposed National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board will lead to dramatic improvements, since it is envisaged only as an advisory body. Without empowered oversight, it is impossible to eliminate systemic corruption in transport departments in vehicle certification and licensing of drivers, and poor monitoring of roadworthiness of commercial vehicles. The Centre should also act on the virtual monopoly held by automotive companies on the sale of spares and servicing of vehicles, which is raising cost of ownership and affecting quality of maintenance. Research suggests there will be an annual rise in fatalities until 2042, before a decline sets in. That distressing prognosis can be changed only through determined action today.