Last year, a Union Cabinet minister was killed in a road accident. That day, like every other day, 380 common people were also killed in road accidents across India. The country was soon promised sweeping legislative changes to make our roads safer but none of that has yet seen the light of the day.
In the past decade, over 12 lakh people have been killed in road accidents in India and over 60 lakh have been left seriously injured or permanently disabled.
The economic loss as a result of these accidents is estimated to be 3% of India’s GDP. This epidemic, however, can be brought under control through decisive and reformative measures. The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, the principal law governing road safety in the country, has failed to address the systemic challenges that make our roads the most unsafe in the world.
The need of the hour is a strong and comprehensive legislative framework that focuses on the five pillars — road safety management; safer roads; safer vehicles; safer road-users; and better post-crash responses — to address the fundamental gaps in road safety.
A new Bill, the Road Transport and Safety Bill, 2015 drafted by the ministry of road transport and highways seeks to create this framework. It addresses various inadequacies of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.
It introduces safeguards to protect all class of road-users including non-motorised and vulnerable road-users such as pedestrians, children and cyclists. Given that currently the modal share of non-motorised transport in cities and urban areas range from 40%-50%, while accounting for over 60% of all deaths, such a focus could be a potential game changer in saving lives.
Notably, this Bill provides an internationally accepted definition for ‘road crash death’ as one where a person dies within 30 days due to injuries sustained in a road accident. This will improve the state of accident reporting across India.
The Bill also proposes a detailed accident investigation proforma to bring uniformity in police investigation across India.
The Bill focuses on improving driver behaviour in a multi-pronged manner. It proposes reforms in the corrupt licensing and training regime. It hopes to reduce the number of unqualified but licensed drivers on our roads.
It seeks to achieve this by recalibrating traffic offences and including new violations such as ‘dangerous lane changing’, ‘causing death of a child’, ‘driving against authorised flow of traffic’ etc; and tailor-making penalties, including fixing adult accountability when children use the road, community-service sanctions and penalty points attached to the licence that leads to a licence suspension upon accumulating 12 points in a year, so as to create a consistent and lasting deterrent effect on offenders and their mind sets.
Recognising the importance of enforcement and the challenges faced by an over-burdened police, the Bill proposes the creation of a dedicated National Highway Police Force. It will be responsible for enforcing traffic rules, investigating road accidents, and providing immediate medical attention to the injured across all national highways.
There are some concerns though that have emerged in the latest draft of the Bill. Penalties for several life-threatening offences such as over-speeding have been drastically reduced to up to Rs 2,000.
In the previous drafts, violations by HMVs were treated differently from LMVs given the much higher damage a violating HMV could cause. But in the latest draft, penalties for HMVs have been brought down to the same level as LMVs. This is seemingly to appease the transport lobbies in the country.
Penalties for several other offences have been brought down to as low as Rs 500. Penalties for car companies violating regulations have been reduced by 90%. No significant penalty has been proposed for road contractors or engineers whose negligence or faulty construction of a road leads to deaths. Another area of concern is the cap of Rs 15 lakh maximum liability on insurance companies for death or injury. This limits the amount of compensation to be paid by third-party insurance companies for the minimum premium amount, putting the onus of seeking wider coverage for compensation to the victim, on the accused driver.
A fundamental facet that will determine the success of this legislative instrument is the approach taken by the government in reforming corrupt systems, creating deterrents for irresponsible behaviour, and enforcing safety standards for engineering of roads and vehicles.
In order to stimulate India’s economic growth and human development, coordinated efforts must be focused on addressing the governance, efficiency, safety and enforcement issues plaguing the road transport system.
A stronger legislative mechanism that comprehensively regulates and reforms the regime is long overdue.
Despite these shortcomings, the proposed Road Transport and Safety Bill, 2015 is a step in the right direction and must not be opposed in its entirety. It spearheads necessary advancements in the sector towards a safe-system approach, where design-thinking and accountability take precedence over arbitrary, uncoordinated steps to address the issue. The aspect of reduced penalties can be addressed inside Parliament.
What is required now is serious political commitment to tackle the consistent threat of death and serious injury due to road accidents in India. The deliberations have gone on for far too long.
Since the Modi government came to power, close to 1 lakh people have already been killed in road accidents. It is now time for road safety to become the rule, rather than the exception. Parliament should address this need and swiftly act to introduce a strong road safety law in the interest of the nation.
Piyush Tewari is founder and CEO, SaveLIFE Foundation
The views expressed by the author are personal