SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Stop the killer on the roads

JANARDHAN ROYE

Exponential growth of vehicles: Where are the roads to cope with so much traffic?

Exponential growth of vehicles: Where are the roads to cope with so much traffic?  

IT'S the news no one wants to hear: Young man meets with road accident. The information invariably comes over the phone. It's a gut-wrenching time; hundreds of thoughts race through the mind. How serious is the accident? What happened? Is he dead?

Around the world that concern often becomes a grim reality. In 2002, youngsters — mostly male — between 15 and 29 years accounted for more than 70 per cent of all road accident deaths. Even worse, the 15 to 44 year age group accounts for more than 50 per cent of lives lost in road mishaps.

The World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, 2004, estimates that about two million people met fatal road accidents, and some 20 to 50 million people suffered injuries, not to speak of the millions hospitalised, as many as five million disabled for life and any number scarred mentally.

In countries like India, unlike the West, there is little regulation of people, vehicles, and stray animals on motor paths. The complex network, of over three million kilometres, which forms India's communication lifeline has fast-moving vehicles, animal-drawn carts, children at play, footpath vendors and shopkeepers, bystanders, pedestrians, cattle and dogs dangerously adjoining roads. Any of them can cause or become victims of an accident — if, say, a speeding bus driver loses control. Invariably such victims are from the low-income strata and have little or no access to prompt medical services.

Road accident statistics in developing nations are poor and non-standardised, which means figures and the problem can be underestimated. As per data presented in the Rajya Sabha, there were about 80,000 deaths due to road accidents in 2002. An analysis of this data shows that more than 80 per cent of deaths were due to the driver's fault. Other reasons cited were mechanical failure, pedestrians' fault, bad roads, stray cattle, fallen trees, non-functioning of road signals, and absence of road signs.

India's infrastructure is poor and outdated, despite impressive economic growth, and is no match for the modern, high performance vehicles on its roads. Thanks to easy, inexpensive loans and higher disposable incomes, more people have personalised transport. The new machines are capable of touching amazing speeds, customers are told repeatedly in TV ads.

Global studies indicate that young men are most accident-prone, particularly at night. They hurtle around often smoking or with their cell phone on. In between they tinker with the radio or CD players — seemingly innocuous multitasking that is a dangerous distraction.

In the West, patrols are alert to speeding vehicles, drunken driving, and such carelessness on the roads.

Besides it is not easy for youngsters to get on the roads — many countries slap abnormally high insurance premiums on them.

WHO has designated the third Sunday in November as the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. Perhaps the best way to honour this day is to end this sad record of deaths and injuries.

All nations, including the developing and poor ones, need to seriously focus on the killer that leaves carnage on roads, and robs families and state of young people who are in their prime and most productive period of their lives.

Road accidents can be prevented by monitoring speed and alcohol consumption, by promoting use of helmets and seatbelts, by ensuring greater visibility on roads of parked vehicles, stray animals and such, by improving the design and maintenance of roads, by strict enforcement of traffic rules and, finally, by improving emergency response services — specially during the "Golden Hour" when accident victims can be saved by prompt medical attention.

Each citizen has an obligation to prevent road mishaps. Each has a responsibility for one's own actions; to behave responsibly whether driving, as a passenger or walking.

Responsible use of the road, adherence to road traffic laws and regulations are essential.

"Road accidents are predictable" and so preventable. Close coordination using a holistic and integrated approach across many sectors is required.

Partnerships for promotion of road safety need to be formed between the police/traffic department, hospitals, ambulances and blood banks, corporate, voluntary and community organisations, government departments, and educational institutions.

With WHO in the lead, such initiatives may well turn the tide and save some five million lives by 2020.

Importantly, the next generation, need not be needless footnotes in history — as were the many celebrities who prematurely departed this life in road accidents.

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Celebrities in accidents

August 1997: A married princess and her billionaire boyfriend try to give the paparazzi the slip. Somewhere in Paris' Alma tunnel, something goes wrong. A mysterious Fiat Uno follows the Merc. Amid strong lights, screeching of rubber and collision of metal, Lady Diana, Dodi Fayed and the driver are killed.

1982: Hollywood star and Princess of Monaco speeds along on a scenic Monaco road. Her daughter, Stephanie, is in the car. At a bend, she loses control and the car plunges off the cliff side. The daughter survives but Grace Kelly is no more.

January 1960: Well-known author is riding with friends in a Facel-Vega sportster, from Provence to Paris. An oil slick on the wet road sends the car into a skid and off the road. It hits a tree. Albert Camus, the youngest to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, lies with a broken neck.

September 1955: A silver Porsche 550 Spyder is doing 100 mph on California's Grapevine. A1950 Ford Tudor appears ahead in the dust. There is a desperate attempt to avoid a collision. The Ford barely touches the sports car. But that is enough. The roaring machine goes up in the air and is crushed like "a tin-can". The driver, 24-year old James Dean, is caught in sharp, twisted metal and succumbs to head injuries.