Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has expressed optimism that the significant amendments made to the Motor Vehicles Act have begun reducing the terrible death toll due to accidents on India’s roads . As the prime mover of these changes, he finds the reported reduction in crashes, notably in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, proof of the law’s beneficial impact. Any reduction in road safety incidents in a rapidly motorising country is encouraging, but the cold reality is that data on those who lose their lives or are incapacitated do not reflect a marked decline. In fact, they underscore the culture of indifference among States. Unlike acute crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic , which has sent governments scrambling to save lives and stop economic derailment, a chronic malaise such as deadly road accidents begets only token measures. What else could explain policymakers tolerating the loss of about 1.5 lakh lives each year since 2015, with the graph rising from 80,888 fatalities in 2001? Small reductions in this infamous tally, which Mr. Gadkari took note of at a transporters’ summit, have little meaning, since they do not represent a trend of targeted reductions. The new Motor Vehicles law does have more muscle in being able to levy stringent penalties for road rule violations — some States are using it — but that is not the same as saying that India has moved to a scientific road system marked by good engineering, sound enforcement, appropriate technology use and respect for all road users. In fact, a World Bank ‘Delivering Road Safety in India’ report is apprehensive that rapid motorisation and more high-speed road infrastructure have raised the risks for road users.
The transition to a professional road environment requires implementation of first-tier reforms that deal with quality of road infrastructure, facilities for vulnerable users and zero-tolerance enforcement of rules by a trained, professional and empowered machinery. A key mechanism of change are District Road Safety Committees, which were enabled even by the 1988 Act, but remain obscure. A mandatory monthly public hearing of such committees involving local communities can highlight safety concerns, and their follow-up action can then be supervised by the Members of Parliaments’ Road Safety Committees, created last year. Here, it is essential to make the Collector, local body and police accountable. Making dashboard cameras mandatory, with the video evidence accepted in investigation, would protect rule-abiding motorists and aid enforcement. To save lives on highways, quality trauma care at the district level holds the key. In the absence of good hospitals and cashless free treatment, no significant improvement is possible in the quest to save life and limb.