The place: Somewhere in Rajasthan. Time: Last Saturday, late evening.
A BMW sedan was travelling at 100kph. At the wheel was the son of an MLA, allegedly drunk. Too late, he saw looming ahead, an autorickshaw and a police van.
When the air cleared, bystanders saw that the occupants of the BMW had escaped with minor injuries, thanks to the airbags. At the other end, they were not so lucky: Three dead, seven wounded.
A common enough occurrence, you might say. And the takeaway is straightforward — the people in the cars escape, and those in less safe vehicles such as autos or two-wheelers — die.
But the subtext is equally important. The accident was the direct consequence of driver negligence. In this case, criminal negligence, as the alcohol in his blood was tested at three times over the permissible limit. The victims were not the dangerous drivers. And Indian government data says 70% of road accidents occur due to driver’s fault.
According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Global Health Report on Road Safety 2015, on a scale from 1 to 10, India scores a miserable 3 in enforcement of the speed laws, as against 9 by France, 8 by China, whereas Brazil and Japan score a 7. The ratings for drink-driving laws are almost similar: France and Brazil score an 8, China, Japan take 9 each while India scores a 4.
The report states that “only 48 countries rate their enforcement of drink–driving laws as ‘good’. Only 34 countries, representing 2.1 billion people, have drink–driving laws in line with best practice.”
Possibly, this loose enforcement of law in the country empowered a 20-something Anurag to test his Verna’s top speed on a Nagpur City road in August 2014. The sedan crashed into a tree and summersaulted thrice. Top speed: 140kph. Deaths: Two, including Anurag’s.
The government has been forcing automakers to make cars safer, which they are, optionally, by providing airbags only to the driver or sometimes only the dual fronts as standard, leaving it to the customers’ choice.
Also, the largest chunk of on-road deaths is of those on two- and three-wheelers (34%), on which helmets may be the only life-saving gear. And India scores a 4 in the helmet law enforcement on the same scale where France (98% compliance) and Japan score 9 each, China (20% compliance) and Brazil (81% compliance) take a 6 each. A typical Bengaluru road traffic has around 60% of riders wearing a helmet.
The May 17 report from the Global NCAP car crash tests worried stakeholders in the auto industry. But after that, another car launched without an airbag or with least safety and everyone was back to business.
Major automakers point out how Indian car-buyer has a different attitude while purchasing cars. “We can only cars safe up to a point. But Indian customer cares more about mileage.”
Maruti Suzuki’s Puneet Dhawan says, “How can you make someone wear a seat belt or drive a car safely?”
Will we ever get serious about safety on roads?
Yes. We did, once in 2014 when the government sprang into action to draft the Road Safety Bill 2014 soon after former Union minister Gopinath Munde was killed in a road accident in Delhi. In the rear seat of his car, Munde was not wearing a seat belt. Nor was another former Union minister Rajesh Pilot wearing one in June 2000 or the former president Gyani Zail Singh in November 1994, as they breathed their last in the rear seat of their cars.
Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister of roads, transport and highways, regrets the non-passage of the Road Safety Bill, as he also points out how accidents incur a loss of around 3% to the GDP. He also boasts how the government is making roads at a historic pace of 20km a day, up from 2012’s 15km per day and aims to make it at 30km a day by the end of this year.
The Road Safety Bill 2014, which proposes hefty fines of up to Rs 3 lakh and jail terms of minimum 7-years for death in road accidents, still lies unattended amid files across the Houses in New Delhi.
India is set to be the third largest car market in the world, which sees over three dozen new launches every fiscal. These new vehicles have gotten smarter with every new feature adding to convenience and safety of the people on board, though not at a mandatory level.
According to the Road Accidents in India 2015 report by the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH), from 2005 to 2013, the number of deaths in road accidents in India has gone up from 8.7 per lakh of population to 11.2. The number of accidents per 10,000 vehicles dropped from a 53.9 to 26.8, almost half in the same period. Also, deaths went down from 11.7 to 7.6 every 10,000 vehicles, implying vehicles have become safer than before.
On the other hand, an average 249.3 deaths took place in India every 10,000 km in 2005, which once peaked to 304.7 in 2011, and has increased to 262.9 in 2013. Roughly, 35% of these deaths took place on the national highways, a nearly constant median over the past decade, in about 28% of the total road mishaps in the country, the MoRTH report says.
Airbags are available, though as optional, in most models in the market today; anti-lock braking system (ABS) and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) system have also been installed in higher car trims at their costs. Carmakers are complying with the international safety norms, gearing themselves for the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Program (BNVSAP) standards likely to come by next year.
But irrespective of the smarter vehicles or the “safer roads”, the number of accidents in India has gone up. Agreed that the number of vehicles on road is increasing, the traffic is going up. But how are the roads being made in this dynamic era of “smart cities” and “safe cars”?
Safer roads mean standard quality of roads, adequate caution signage and proper enforcement of law, which India misses badly, coupled by a lack of public will.
“The most positive changes to road user behaviour occur when road safety legislation is supported by strong and sustained enforcement, and public awareness,” the WHO report says.
Globally, only 34 countries have adequate national drink-driving laws, 21 of which are in the Europe, stamping the need to spread the awareness globally.
The focus of government action seems to be only on the faster construction of roads and letting contractors earn handsome tolls from them. Safer roads in India are like a mirage, you can only see them. Do they exist?