“Human life is precious.” This is what the Supreme Court said on December 15 while banning liquor shops along highways across India to bring down road accidents.But there is no comprehensive legal framework yet in place to make the country’s roads safer.
Government statistics show that one road accident takes place every four minutes in India. Road crashes are number one killer of young men and women, crucial for a country’s growth. One-third of all road accident fatalities reported in 2015 were in the age group of 15-24 years with a total of 48,420 deaths, and the age group of 25-34 constituted 21% of all deaths. Almost 97% of the road accidents are caused by rash or negligent driving including drunken driving. The number of people killed in road accidents on the national highways shot up from 48,768 in 2012 to 51,204 in 2015.
- Formulation of a road safety policy
- Setting up agencies in states exclusively to deal with road safety
- Adopting traffic calming methods at accident prone locations
- Compulsory helmet for drivers and pillion riders
- Mandatory use of seat belts
- Bringing all uninsured vehicles under insurance cover by tallying vehicle data with the insurance data maintained by IRDA
“As the road network expands in India, road infrastructure being an integral part of economic development, accidents profoundly impact the life of common citizen. For a nation on the cusp of economic development, India can well avoid the tag of being the accident capital of the world,” noted the Supreme Court. The court’s remarks in its December 15 order highlighted the problem of drunken driving and stressed on the need for “proper enforcement” to prevent it.
The apex court ordered the closure of liquor shops along highways despite strong opposition from states which argued that such a shutdown would adversely impact their revenue.
“You can start a door-to-door delivery service,” the bench retorted during a hearing when a state counsel justified the presence of vends. Another government advocate was admonished for “siding up with the liquor lobby” as he got up to defend the policy.
The United Nations puts the loss India suffers due to accidents at $58 billion annually. The judgment on liquor vends is a result of efforts by SC to make roads safer. Credit also goes to the civil society for pursuing it even as the Centre and states continue to dither. Piyush Tiwari, director of Savelife Foundation, an NGO, says courts will continue to drive this exercise until a strong legal framework is in place. “There is nobody to take ownership of the issue except the SC. However, it will be difficult to implement the judgments until legislation is in place.”
Good Samaritan guidelines
Tiwari’s foundation spearheaded the campaign for a “Good Samaritan” law. On its petition, the top court on March 30, 2016 ordered the Centre to notify the guidelines that gave legal protection, rights and empowerment to citizens to help road crash victims.
The SC stepped in at a crucial time because the lack of guidelines empowering citizens to help road crash victims meant that a large number of survivors used to succumb to injuries for lack of immediate medical attention.
In a report in 2006, the law commission said 50% of road fatalities could have been avoided if the victims were administered medical aid within an hour. A major impediment to victims getting help was the fear of bystanders getting embroiled in legal procedures. Another factor that discouraged witnesses was that they would have to pay for the medical bills. Yet, the Parliament did not take note of it.
But, Tewari says a good order remains on paper until it’s made effective. Savelife is working with states to help them frame a “Good Samaritan” Law and Karnataka has been the first to promulgate it.
His organisation will also associate itself with four other states including Delhi for a law on Good Samaritan, Tewari says. “A law is required to fix accountability. No judicial orders shall be successful unless punitive action taken against errant officers,” Tiwari told HT.
Panel on road safety
Advocate Gaurav Agarwal appreciates the top court’s efforts. At the same time Centre and States need to hire experts to implement even judicial orders since road safety is a technical subject, he says.
Agarwal is assisting an SC bench in an on-going case where the top court constituted a high-powered panel under the supervision of retired SC judge, Justice KS Radhakrishnan. Formed on April 22, 2014 on the basis of a PIL, the panel was to measure and monitor the implementation of road safety laws in the country. The committee has so far submitted nine reports, the last one being in September.
It has pointed out serious lapses in implementation of safety laws by States, which has led to increase in number of road fatalities. Several recommendations have been suggested including drafting a road safety policy. However, Agarwal says states have challenged the authority of the committee to issue orders. The only suggestion put to practise is suspension of driving license of errant drivers for three months. The court, Agarwal said, made an effort to have in place one agency that can oversee road safety since it’s nobody’s baby. “Centre might bring in a law, but it’s up to the states to follow it. Even within the Central government there are so many ministries that deal with various aspects of road safety,” says Agarwal, pointing to the difficulties that arise in enforcing judicial orders.
The court has been nudging the Centre to co-ordinate with states to develop a mechanism, he said.
Tiwari too is hopeful that the Centre will revamp the 28-year-old Motor Vehicle Act, which was meant to regulate motor vehicles and not road safety. “Let us wish all political parties come together to pass this bill,” he says.