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Unsafe at the wheel

In the absence of political will, plans to check road accidents remain neglected. KK Kapila writes.

india Updated: Jun 07, 2012 22:11 IST
KK Kapila

Road accidents take such a terrible toll in our country that tackling the menace on a war-footing is the need of the hour. The tragedy is that our political leadership is yet to wake up to this gargantuan problem.

It must be recognised that road accidents are a leading cause of deaths in many countries. This is why the UN General Assembly, on May 9, 2010, proclaimed 2011-2020 the Decade of Action for Road Safety, setting a global goal of stabilising and then reducing by 50% the forecast level of road fatalities.

The UN General Assembly asked the World Health Organisation (WHO) to work with all stakeholders to prepare a plan of action for the decade as a guiding document to support the implementation of its objectives. Governments across the world were to develop a roadmap to achieve this goal and then take steps to implement it.

In response, India too set out to develop an action plan. But the plan is still a work-in-progress. If the Centre takes so long to develop an action plan, then there is no certainty as to how long the states will take to develop their own plans.

The reason why our governments have been so lackadaisical on issues relating to road safety is that there is no political ownership of the war against road accidents.

The UN General Assembly had also asked the WHO to coordinate regular monitoring of the global progress on road safety. While the mechanism for monitoring put in place by the WHO is commendable, the International Road Federation (IRF), an NGO with the mission to encourage and promote better, safer and more sustainable roads in 90 countries, has conveyed to the UN Secretary-General that for optimal effectiveness, it is imperative to involve the political leadership in each country. The full backing of the political leadership will ensure that the government is wholeheartedly committed to achieving the goals that it has set.

On behalf of IRF, I have requested the Secretary-General to have a framework for review that will require every member state to submit, through its Permanent Representative to the UN, an annual status report. This status report must be duly signed by the head of government.

It is only when the political leadership signs off on a document will it feel a sense of ownership of the mission whose progress is detailed in the status report. That situation will be a far cry from the present state of affairs in India where road safety is nobody’s baby.

Politicians have to believe that if they back road safety measures and there is an appreciable difference in the situation they will not only be applauded by the electorate but also win its undying gratitude. Road accidents hurt the aam aadmi the most as the “vulnerable road users” are mostly pedestrians and two-wheeler users. When the breadwinner is killed or critically injured, the entire family is hurt. From funerals to hospitalisation to income loss, road accidents take a heavy financial toll. This is one area where change means lives saved, injuries averted, or minimised, and families saved from misery and ruin.

In my dealings with high political dignitaries on the question of road safety, I have found widespread willingness to listen, but not enough willingness to lend weight to the cause. True transformation will come only when this changes. When representatives of the people, at all levels, take up road safety as a mission and a cause, it will make a monumental difference in the war against road accidents.

There are international precedents for such political backing to the cause of road safety. Up until 2002, France had the most dangerous roads in all of Europe. Appalled at this alarming situation, French President Jacques Chirac announced in his Bastille Day address that year that he would make road safety one of the three major goals of his term in office. It is not usual for a head of state to talk about road safety in his National Day address to his people. But Chirac did the extraordinary and urged both public authorities and the people of France to take all necessary steps to make French roads safer. A campaign followed. It worked. In 2002, there were 7,400 fatalities from road accidents in France. In 2004, there were only 4,900 road traffic deaths — a record 20% drop! Chirac had demonstrated that political will and political leadership can work wonders — even in road safety.

(KK Kapila is chairman of the Geneva-based International Road Federation)

The views expressed by the author are personal