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India needs more good Samaritans

Unfortunately for victims of road accidents, crowds are just observers, and often hesitate to help, and with good reason. With accidents come the police, and with the police come investigations. Assistance is therefore, not always easy or instinctive. This is primarily because people are unaware of Section 134A of the Motor Vehicles Act – the Good Samaritan Law.

analysis Updated: Nov 29, 2018 19:39 IST
Marika Gabriel
Marika Gabriel
Hindustan Times
Good Samaritan Law,Road safety
The WHO in its ‘World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, 2004’ has projected that by 2020, road accidents will be one of the biggest killers in India.(HT File Photo)

According to the World Health Organisation, 2015 saw over a million people across the globe losing their lives in road-related accidents, and in a call to action, stated that road accidents are a “massive and largely preventable economic toll”. Many developed countries in the west now consider this a top priority. Their action plans include immediate medical care through bystander intervention. Bystanders, who witness these accidents, are not just expected to help, but in some countries are even punished for negligence if they don’t. Through France’s Non-assistance à personne en danger (or Duty to rescue), the liability of the photographers who pursued Princess Diana’s car on the day that she died was investigated. The charges against them were that of negligence – they failed to render assistance to the victims (they were taking photographs of the dying celebrity in the car) .Eventually, the prosecutor dropped the charges as the driver was to blame. But because of the high-profile case that was, the question of ‘moral duties’ of citizens was raised.

In India, it doesn’t take much for a crowd to gather (not just photographers). Curiosity tends to get the better of most people on the streets, many of whom often will stop traffic just to get a quick (or long) peek at whatever is happening. Even accident spots aren’t spared. WhatsApp forwards that preach road safety are almost always accompanied by gruesome, bloody videos of fatal accidents with a crowd often circling the scene.

Unfortunately for victims of road accidents, crowds are just observers, and often hesitate to help, and with good reason. With accidents come the police, and with the police come investigations. Assistance is therefore, not always easy or instinctive. This is primarily because people are unaware of Section 134A of the Motor Vehicles Act – the Good Samaritan Law. It defines a good Samaritan as a bystander at the scene of an accident who offers to provide medical or non-medical assistance to the injured, by either calling for an ambulance, the cops or even taking the victim to the hospital themselves. These eyewitnesses, who are assumed to have acted in good faith and no expectation of reward, are shielded from legal inquiries by the police or hospitals. No personal details are required from them, their identity needn’t be disclosed, and they cannot be pulled into any investigation that may occur after the accident: no civil or criminal liability. This is to ensure that an act of goodwill driven by empathy and a sense of social responsibility is respected. But this law, enacted for all the right reasons, is not implemented.

According to a multi-city survey conducted in 11 cities by the not-for-profit SaveLIFE Foundation with a sample of 3667 people, including the police and hospital administrations, nearly 90% were unaware of this law and a little under 53% of good Samaritans have been detained by the police. Another aspect of the law which saw a shocking 0% compliance is mandatory charters which are meant to be placed in hospitals; which were not. This isn’t just alarming, it’s unlawful.

This is a recent addition to the larger Motor Vehicles Act, having been incorporated following the directions of the Supreme Court in Save Life Foundation vs. Union of India. England, Wales and Ireland have similar laws, all having been recently enacted. England and Wales have “Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Act” which looks at some Samaritans as ‘heroes’.

The roads in our country are dangerous, for pedestrians and vehicles, alike. Roads everywhere are either congested, narrow, falling apart or un-navigable, making accidents a common occurrence. According to data by the ministry of road transport and highways, Uttar Pradesh tops the list of maximum number of road deaths and Maharashtra isn’t far behind. An average of about 150,000 people die in road accidents every year. The WHO in its ‘World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, 2004’ has projected that by 2020, road accidents will be one of the biggest killers in India.

Let’s piece these statistics together: 150,000 deaths, of which about 50% died due to the lack of immediate medical care, during what’s called ‘the golden hour’, the first hour of injury (WHO). According to the survey, only 29% of the participants were willing to escort a victim to hospital, 28% were willing to call an ambulance, and only 12% would agree to call the police. This is a worrying minority vis-à-vis the number of deaths. While the main reason for their hesitation comes from the fact that they fear the police, what is also significant is the fact these percentages prove that police interrogations deter people from the moral choice of saving a life. And that points to a larger problem of empathy. Respondents shouldn’t just be empowered to act but also encouraged to, taught to act swiftly and consider it their social responsibility for the benefit of society. Also, and more importantly, the police and hospital administration must ensure compliance to the SC judgment and protect the rights of good Samaritans.

For morality to prevail, there must be State support. And that’s a good place to start to ensure road safety.

marika.gabriel@htdigital.in

First Published: Nov 29, 2018 18:03 IST