Fifty-one passengers of an overcrowded bus died in an accident on the morning of February 16 when it fell into a canal near Sarda Patan village in Sidhi district, Madhya Pradesh. A griha pravesh (house-warming) ceremony for the beneficiaries of one lakh houses constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana in Bhopal, which was to be attended virtually by Union Home Minister Amit Shah, was cancelled due to the incident. Two days earlier, fourteen persons were killed when a minivan they were travelling in hit a divider on a National Highway (NH) near Madarpur village in Kurnool district, Andhra Pradesh. The van carrying 18 passengers was on its way to Ajmer in Rajasthan from Chittoor, when the driver lost control and hit the divider, tumbling on the other side of the road where a speeding truck crashed into it.
According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, 1,51,113 persons were killed and 4,51,361 injured in road accidents across the country in 2019. NHs and State Highways, which account for about 5% of the total road length, claimed 61% of the deaths related to accidents. Around 35,606 deaths were reported on the NHs, which come under the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI).
Speaking at a webinar organised by the International Road Federation on February 9, Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said India topped the fatality figures in road accidents in the world, with 415 deaths each day. While commending Tamil Nadu for taking effective road safety measures that had resulted in the reduction of road accidents by 38% and deaths by 54%, he asked other States to emulate Tamil Nadu.
It is small wonder that he actively pursued the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, with the well-intentioned motive of bringing down the death rate due to road accidents by 50% by 2020. This was agreed to by all participating nations in the United Nations Brasilia Declaration, of which India was a signatory. Though the number of deaths due to accidents declined to 1.20 lakh in 2020 due to COVID-19, Mr. Gadkari shifted the deadline to 2025.
But the steep hike in the fines imposed for traffic violations in the Act was met with stiff opposition, with some States dismissing it as too harsh and, hence, not willing to implement it. What seems to have been ignored while drafting the law was the fact that a good number of those driving vehicles to earn their livelihood were from economically poor backgrounds. West Bengal decided not to implement the new law and continued with the West Bengal Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989.
The Madras High Court recently struck down the April 6, 2018 notification of the Union Government wherein the speed limit was hiked to 120 and 100 km/hour on expressways and highways, respectively. This was done as 66.7% of accidents was attributed to overspeeding in 2017, 55.73% in 2018 and 64.4% in 2019.
Studies carried out by various organisations have also come out with the causes for accidents and ways to curb them. The Accident Research Cell of the Delhi Traffic Police carried out an analysis of accidents and created a database that facilitates the formulation of policies to prevent accidents. While probing an accident that led to the death of former Union Rural Development Minister Gopinath Munde in New Delhi, the cell concluded that hedges along a road obstructed the visibility of drivers coming from the other direction. After the hedges were pruned, the stretch became free from accidents.
While the strict enforcement of traffic safety laws would go a long way, educating citizens about the impact of accidents on the kin of the victims through public discourse could help in reducing accidents. Improving road infrastructure with coordinated efforts by the police and civic authorities, identification of black spots that are prone to accidents and deploying an adequate number of police personnel, particularly during peak hours, could bring down accident rates. Highway patrols with police personnel trained in first aid and ambulances every 10 km could also help save precious lives.
M.P. Nathanael is Inspector-General of Police (retd.), Central Reserve Police Force