Tackling an epidemic as pervasive as road crash deaths and injuries requires a concerted effort, either by design or by coercion. In the past two years, there has been a momentum towards mainstreaming the issue of road safety. There have also been attempts to understand why as a country we continue to be number one in road crash deaths and injuries in the world, and lastly, revamping the moribund existing legislation. But now, there is a danger that amidst the parliamentary logjam, the required action will be delayed.
The numbers speak for themselves, more than 200,000 people killed are killed ever year as per WHO figures and another 500,000 seriously injured, a huge proportion of those being people from the economically weaker sections of the society. Often, breadwinners of families out to earn their wages on foot or on two-wheelers are killed, pushing those left behind into poverty. Road crashes are the number one killer of young men and women in India, a crucial component of any developing nation. The loss to the country is colossal with the UN putting it at $58 billion dollars annually, which is enough to fund many of the social sector schemes of this Government multiple times over.
It is heartening to note that in recent times, the Supreme Court has stepped in at crucial times and pronounced judgments that have contributed to the path of attaining safer roads. The March 30 judgment on the protection of Good Samaritans in the matter SaveLIFE Foundation v. Union of India is one such example. Apart from being a landmark judgment that gave new rights to every citizen and empowered them to help road crash victims, the case witnessed cooperation between the executive and the judiciary, a rarity these days.
The momentum continues with the Supreme Court on December 7 coming down heavily on the Union government and the Punjab government on the issue of liquor vends on highways and the need for their immediate closure. The observation was apt as the executive, in the quest for garnering revenue, cannot entice and offer drivers to drink on the side of the highways, and then expect them not to drive drunk. More than 6,700 cases of drink driving deaths have been recorded in 2015 alone. On the same day, the Supreme Court also took up the issue of Section 304A (causing death by rash and negligent act) of the IPC, which provides for a maximum of only two years jail term, inadequate to deter errant drivers. The court has asked the government to revisit this provision, widely used to book drivers in road crash deaths.
The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2016, was introduced in the Parliament on August 9, 2016, by minister of road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari. The attempt is to revamp the 28-year-old Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. The Bill now rests with the Parliamentary Standing Committee and it is to submit its report in this session. The fact that road safety is a bipartisan issue isn’t lost on policymakers. The Congress has lost many promising leaders to road crashes such as Rajesh Pilot. The BJP has lost Gopinath Munde and Sahib Singh Verma. Recently Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee’s nephew was seriously injured. Now, this realisation has to translate into strong legislation. Political parties should come together and pass this Bill soon.
GK Pillai is former Union home secretary and trustee of SaveLIFE Foundation. Piyush Tewari is founder and CEO, SaveLIFE Foundation
The views expressed are personal