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HindustanTimes Fri,25 Apr 2014

Welcome to hope highway

Nitasha Sharma, Hindustan Times  Pune & Mumbai, August 06, 2009
First Published: 00:12 IST(6/8/2009) | Last Updated: 18:36 IST(7/8/2009)

Figure conscious
290 people on average, die in road accidents in India every day.
12 lakh people are seriously injured in road accidents across the country every year; about 3 lakh are permanently disabled.
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1,000 youngsters, most of them aged 10 to 24, die every day in bike and car crashes around the world, according to a 2007 World Bank study. Road accidents kill more 15- to 19-year-olds than any disease in the world, including AIDS and cancer.

Pradip Gharat couldn’t believe it when the car he was travelling in started to whirl around uncontrollably on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, then flipped over and crashed into a hillside.

“The driver was a cop,” says the 52-year-old special public prosecutor, who tries cases on behalf of the CBI and Mumbai police. “If that doesn’t guarantee safety, what will?”

Gharat could have become yet another statistic — over 1 lakh people die in road accidents in India every year. That’s 290 people every day, more than any other country in the world.

As it is, he broke several ribs and was bedridden for three months. It was six months before he returned to work.

“I was told later that one of the tyres had burst,” says Gharat. “I wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for the highway patrol car that picked me up in about five minutes and rushed me to hospital.”

Five years ago, Gharat might not have made it. The Expressway had just two emergency medical vehicles and victims of car crashes often had to depend on the kindness of strangers to get to a hospital.

Around the world
Singapore: Speeding can attract fines of up to 600 Singapore dollars (about Rs. 20,000). It also earns the driver 18 demerit points — 24 points means your licence is automatically suspended. First-time drink-drivers, meanwhile, face up to 5,000 Singapore dollars (Rs 1.65 lakh) in fines or six months in prison. The licence is instantly revoked. Second-time offenders face up to 10,000 Singapore dollars (Rs 3.34 lakh) in fines and up to a year in prison. Subsequent offences can attract up to 30,000 Singapore dollars (Rs 9.90 lakh) in fines and three years in prison.
The UK: Speeding can attract up to 2,500 pounds  (Rs 2 lakh) in fines and a possible driving disqualification.
The US: Speeding attracts fine of up to $500 (Rs 25,000). For drink-driving, your licence may be temporarily suspended and your vehicle impounded. You may also be required to participate in a drunk-driver education programme, with jail time and community service offered as alternatives.
France: Speeding can attract fines of up to 135 Euros (Rs 9,100) and possible suspension of your licence for up to three years. For drink-driving, the fine can go as high as 4,500 Euros (Rs 3.06 lakh) and up to two years in jail. You might also be banned from driving in France for up to three years.
Then, a road safety audit conducted by the Central Road Research Institute in 2004 pointed out that there should be at least double the number of vans on the 100-km, six-lane roadway, and more patrol cars and motorcycle-borne policemen to keep an eye out for speeding, rash driving and signs of drunkenness behind the wheel.

It also suggested fencing to keep animals off the road, and warning signs in accident-prone zones. Ideal Road Builders Pvt Ltd (IRBPL), which was in charge of maintaining the Expressway, made the necessary changes.

“We now have cameras in tunnels to make sure no vehicles have stalled inside,” says IRB director Jayant Mhaiskar. “Whenever there is a crash, our vans are at the site in minutes. And 18 patrolling teams watch traffic closely 24x7. If they see a truck weaving, they stop it and accompany the driver to the next service station so he can rest. If the driver is drunk, he is handed over to the police.”

With 1.3 lakh accidents across the country every year — that’s 10 per cent of road accident fatalities worldwide and three times more than the number of people murdered across India every year — it’s time the government stepped in to improve safety.

So here’s what we suggest: First, make regular road safety audits mandatory for all highways and major roads. These audits would examine whether there was enough emergency assistance available in case of a crash.

It would also check factors that might contribute to a higher accident rate — like poor lighting, lack of signage and cattle or stray animals on the street.

“‘Black-spot accidents’ frequently take place,” says Atul Kumar, chief general manager (Road Safety Cell) with the National Highways Authority of India. “We should illuminate these spots and put signs before and after them saying: ‘Entering accident-prone area’. National highways are generally not illuminated, except in urban areas. This is not good.”

On the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, following the recommendations of the audit report have helped bring the accident rate down by 10 per cent.

Step 2: Make vehicular checks mandatory every six months. Anyone found driving a vehicle that has not been checked must face instant suspension of his licence.

Fines and penalties for drink-driving and rash driving should also be made much more stringent. There has been some progress in this regard in Mumbai, at the other end of the Expressway. Either offence can now result in instant jail time and comparatively hefty fines — motorists in the financial capital routinely fork out up to Rs. 1,000 and spend the night in jail if found inebriated behind the wheel.

The fines are still paltry, though — only slightly higher than the entrance fee to the nightclubs where many of the youngsters get sloshed.  Run bad drivers off the road

It is, in fact, at these nightclubs and cafes that the safety precautions could begin. In France, for instance, every such establishment is legally bound to conduct breathalyser tests on patrons as they leave. India should institute similar rules in its cities, with management refusing to hand over car keys to those that test positive.

As for speeding — the biggest cause of road accidents — the maximum fine in Mumbai is a mere Rs. 200.

Compare this with Singapore, where the fine for speeding is 600 Singapore dollars (about Rs. 20,000). Or France’s fine of 4,500 Euros (Rs 3.06 lakh)

— plus a jail term of up to two years and a three-year moratorium on driving — for being drunk behind the wheel.

India should, in fact, also have compulsory breathalyser tests at clubs and cafes that serve alcohol, as France does.

The stringent measures and hefty fines in the developed world — equal to a month’s salary, rather than half a day’s, as in India — might explain why, according to the National Transportation Planning and Research Centre, the number of road accidents in India is three times that in developed countries. That’s 35 crashes per 1,000 vehicles here, as against four to 10 in the developed world.

Though some of these accidents may be factors of poor road infrastructure, studies have shown that about 80 per cent are caused by human error.

Which brings us to Step 3: Stricter licencing tests and longer prison terms for touts supplying fake documents — and for those using their services. Anyone found cheating or using illegal means to get a driver’s licence should be barred from taking the test for up to five years.

“The accident rate would drop if the transport ministry and local authorities put a tight check on touts and other middlemen involved in issuing fake licenses and permits to truck and other heavy vehicle drivers,” says IRB’s Mhaiskar. “Superior road quality, with regular checks on maintenance and improvement, are vital too as good roads are the first step to safe travel.”

(With inputs from Kumar Abishek and Madhulika Sonkar)

GOVT SPEAK
The suggestions are very valid. Black spot accidents frequently take place. We should illuminate these spots and put signs before and after them saying: ‘Entering accident-prone area’. National highways are generally not illuminated, except in urban areas.

This is not good. There should also be specific measures like impounding vehicles of drunken drivers. If a drunken driver causes a fatal accident or serious injury, his licence should be cancelled.

Atul kumar Chief General Manager (Road Safety Cell), National Highways Authority of India
(As told to Vanshika Sahni)

EXPERT SPEAK

The main reasons behind the highest number of deaths in road accidents are that speed varies a lot on our roads, and we have a lot of pedestrians and few facilities for them. Reducing the number of accidents needs a multi-disciplined approach. And currently there is a lack of sufficient coordination between the authorities concerned. Instead of increasing fines, we should institute a point system. Once offenders exceeded a certain number of points, their licence would automatically be cancelled. It is also important to generate awareness among road users.

Nishi Mittal
Scientist, Central Road Research Institute

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