The Motor Vehicles Act is a good first step. Now, bring in more reforms | Analysis
These include infrastructure upgrade, focus on highaways and rural India, and improving the police to vehicles ratioUpdated: Sep 19, 2019 11:39 IST
Less than a month after amending the Motor Vehicle Act, dissenting voices have emerged across the country. While states such as Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Rajasthan have refused to implement it, listing exorbitant fines as the main reason, others such as Gujarat are rolling back the penalties under a modified fee structure. Media have aired people’s grievances against high penalties and long queues for getting pollution certificates. And, finally, what is annoying the public the most are the special treatment meted out to the VIPs and their kin by the police and publicised by the media.
Faced with the onslaught from states, the Union transport minister has stated that the purpose of the amended law is to reduce accidents and save human lives, which is a shared responsibility. It is up to the states now to conform or adopt their own fine structure.
Meanwhile, India continues to lose around 150,000 lives on its roads every year despite its commitment to reduce road accidents and fatalities to 50% by 2020, as per the Sustainable Development Goals of WHO. More than half of the accident victims are young, and in their most productive age. Traffic snarls in metro cities are a usual feature, causing undue stress on drivers and commuters, and national highways account for around 36% of the road fatalities. Mofussil India -- where two wheelers, trucks, tractors, jeeps and cycles crisscross the countryside carelessly -- remains untouched from traffic regulations.
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Given the situation, the amended law was expected to have a sobering effect on errant drivers, nightmarish traffic in metros and a calming effect on highways. But the states have come up with their usual slogan in the name of the poor, and want to slash the penalty rates, knowing fully well that this will defeat the purpose of the Act, and put lives in jeopardy. The important decisions taken with an eye on the vote bank will have deleterious effects. It will give rise to the old debate whether our democracy only entails doling handouts to the public.
The question, however, remains unaswered. Can the stringent law alone put an end to road fatalities? Raising penalties may help instil fear towards traffic rules, but it may not solve the problem of road traffic accidents. On the contrary, it can possibly reduce the level of enforcement.
A number of critical issues need to be resolved to make Indian roads less accident prone.
First, the enforcement of the new law is, by and large, relevant to the metro cities only. There are 50 one-million plus cities in India which have the requisite set up to enforce the Act with the help of traffic police, municipality and the Public Works Department (PWD). The latest report of the transport ministry, in 2018, reveals that there were over 82,000 accidents in 2017 -- with a little less than 16,000 fatalities -- in these cities. It will require a systemic overall to reduce these numbers. The population to traffic policemen ratio is too low; municipalities neither have the resource nor the knowhow of traffic management; and the engineering and PWD is perpetually short of funds for road repairs. Without an infrastructural upgrade, and greater road-width, there is hardly any scope for traffic regulation. Lack of political will to remove encroachments from sidewalks, bazars from main roads, and improve the poor road conditions hardly makes a conducive environment for imposing heavy fines on errant drivers.
Even the civic amenities provided remain underutilised. Subways and footbridges constructed for the commuters lie unused as people stubbornly cling to old practices while cross roads, risking their lives. Worse, traffic signals encourage pedestrians to cross heavy traffic zones, rather than authorities making subways and footbridges compulsory. Frequency of casualties can be reduced if the police start imposing fines for jaywalking. The safety campaigns need to be designed to instil discipline and orderliness in the citizens as a measure to reduce road fatalities. Huge infusion of funds is needed in these cities to install and repair of traffic lights, proper signages, zebra crossings, and repair of roads, creation of parking areas, boosting the strength of traffic police and its equipment before enforcement drive can even be launched satisfactorily.
Second, the national highways remain areas of concern where 30% of accidents and 36% of deaths take place. Fatal road accidents are rampant on highways owing to faulty layout or construction defects like narrow service lanes, ill-planned central verges, erroneous road design, sharp curves and faulty signages. Conditions like poor illumination, unguarded civil work, slippery surface, light reflection from the front, and crowding and encroachment on roads also lead to mishaps. A large fraction of India’s freight is carried on these highways; yet, many of them are not designed to withstand heavy vehicles’ weight and pressure. Damaged roads are common owing to poor geometrics, insufficient pavement thickness, low-standard building material, and unpaid attention to quality check. The broken roads get easily eroded after monsoon rains, leaving behind gaping potholes that take a toll on lives every year. Physical factors like fatigue and drowsy-driving add to the risk as highway drivers tend to work long-hours without taking adequate rest.
A different kind of enforcement drive has to be planned on these highspeed corridors where vehicles cannot be routinely checked and penalties imposed. Well-equipped traffic highway patrols should do random checks to detect alcohol abuse and over-speeing, and ascertain registration papers, fog-lights and even condition of vehicles. Specially designed ambulances should be available on call with designated hospitals for different stretches of the route. Any national highway in India without cattle-fencing on both sides will remain unsafe, and the additional cost meant to erect it should be included in the construction cost. Some highways, like the vulnerable Yamuna Expressway, need more traffic interceptors to check over-speeding, rash and drunken driving. The National Hightway Authority of India will have to invest more in such areas, and cut-back on tree plantations -- which reduces the road’s width and endangers smooth traffic flow -- along highways.
Third, the new Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, will fail to make an impact in rural India unless a new scheme of traffic education, engineering and enforcement is devised. It is the mofussil India where vehicles pour into the crowd from all directions with little care for traffic rules, bikers along with their pillion riders go for a merry ride without helmets, overloaded vehicles unworthy of road travel ply uninhibitedly, and truck drivers who manage to carry liquor on the sly zip down the highways at a breakneck speed. Traffic cops remain hapless watchers. No wonder, the rural India accounts for 58% of accidents and 65% road traffic deaths.
The gram panchayats and the zila parishads have to be roped in to make traffic regulation a success in rural areas. Currently, most of the road safety campaigns are limited to cities. Yet deadly road crashes are rampant on the highways that pass through rural areas. The rural India has seen an exponential growth in number and variety of vehicles -- two wheelers, tractors, trucks, jeeps and much more. Potholed roads, encroached on both sides, and bursting at its seams with pedestrians and cyclists, allow little width for vehicle drivers who ride through suburban townships. In such stretches, it is safety that is most important. Imposing heavy fines does not make sense when there is hardly any infrastructure. In rural India, the critical areas to look into are: driving without helmets; trucks, motor cycles, cycles and tractors without back lights; reckless construction of speed-breakers; and, Dhabas encroaching state highways or roads.
Fourth, laws are more effective only when the public is made aware of the reasons and benefits behind. Along with enforcement of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, there should be a sustained effort to enhance awareness about road safety measures to improve the behavioural factors that lead to accidents. Road safety education needs to be imparted to a wide cross-section of society. It should start in schools, and driving lessons should be an optional class in colleges. Innovative themes are called for. For instance, in Janmashtami this year, “Rider Krishna”, a unique avatar of Krishna was designed to enhance public awareness about road safety rules.
Fifth, the poor ratio of traffic police to the number of vehicles sets an impossible task before the main enforcer of the Act. In the capital, 72,000 traffic cops cope with a staggering number of around 7.5 million registered vehicles. Huge investment is required to supplement the manpower throughout the country. Moreover, the police -- the main enforcer of the law -- is not even consulted while designing, constructing or lighting the roads or car parkings. There is a complete lack of coordination between the police and the municipality or PWD with respect to building roads.
And finally, it is the uniform implementation of the Act across the board that will yield desirable results. If the so-called VIPs browbeat the police to avoid the fines, and drivers bribe the police to escape from hefty penalties, the intended benefits of the Act would be completely lost.
The nation cannot afford to lose innocent lives on the roads. It is time to bite the bullet, and conform to the enforcement – saving lives at any cost, even at the cost of populism. The goal of reduction in loss of lives to road accidents is attainable only if the chief ministers of various states are driven by the intent to achieve it. Uniform enforcement of Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, after all, is also a reflection of the political will.
Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS officer and Central Information Commissioner
The views expressed are personal