We need to reasses how to observe road safety week
Starting Saturday, the country will observe the annual road safety week. Every year, the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways earmarks seven days as road safety week to highlight the importance of safe roads. Next week will be the 31st road safety week, which will be observed throughout the country. Central and State governments, local bodies, corporates, the civil society, etc. will work towards highlighting the importance of saving lives on India roads. There will be campaigns, talk shows, advertisements, plays, etc. In short, the mainstream, as well as social, media, will be flooded with road safety messages from January 11 to 17. However, the question is, will it make any difference to road safety on the ground? Unfortunately, no.
India has a dubious record of road safety because every year, around 1,50,000 people lose their lives on India’s roads. For a vast country, India is home to only 2% of global motor vehicles; yet it accounts for over 12% of global road traffic fatalities. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates actual deaths on Indian roads to be over 2,00,000 every year. In addition to traffic fatalities, there are serious injuries, permanent disabilities, families losing their bread-earners. In short, road crashes have reached epidemic levels, and the severity is only increasing every year. Therefore, we need to look back at our approach to road safety. It means working on road safety 24x7 but also looking at how to communicate road safety to our people. Hence, we need to look back at the way we plan out the annual road safety week.
Until recently, the Motor Vehicles Act (MVA) 1988 was the central piece of legislation governing road transport and road safety. The MVA came into existence at a time when the motorisation scenario in India was at a nascent stage. Policies were needed to boost the transportation sector. Therefore, the majority of the provisions of the 1988 bill revolved around the movement of goods and passengers, while safety provisions were mostly missing. Thus, the entire focus was on the education front. That’s the reason why the central theme for all the road safety week observance. However, India now has the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019, a progressive piece of legislation that not only deals with road transport but also safety. Therefore, the road safety week observance should revolve around the new law and the provisions around safety.
Road safety action revolves around five Es, i.e., Education, Enforcement, Engineering, and Environment, and Emergency care of road crash victims. However, when it comes to road safety week, a bulk of the conversation is around educating the road users. Be it ‘follow traffic rules,’ ‘don’t drink and drive,’ ‘speed kills’ etc. Please don’t get me wrong, road safety education is essential, but empirical studies from around the world have shown that education alone does not improve road safety. What is needed is safe infrastructure and safe vehicles in addition to road users who follow safety rules. Hence, there is no reason why all the effort should only be around creating them. Therefore, it is essential to highlight the importance of safe roads, which is the most lacking part of road safety conversations in India.
Road safety is complex and multi-dimensional. Not everything can be achieved in a one-week campaign. Therefore, it is essential to get priorities right. Several studies from around the world have shown that speed is the biggest killer. But somehow, we continue to be fascinated by speed. The other big problem with speed is the fact that it not only impacts the person who is driving but, more importantly, other users on the road, especially pedestrians, cyclists, two-wheeler drivers, etc. For example, if a pedestrian is hit by a car at 30 kmph, the chance of his or her survival is 90%. However, if the same collision takes place at 50 kmph, which is the legal speed limit in our cities, the likelihood is only 15%. Now, imagine what happens beyond 50 kmph? Instant death. Therefore, getting traffic down to safe speeds will save a lot of lives on our roads.
The first road safety week was observed in 1989. So what has happened to road safety since then? Sadly, the only thing that changed in these 31 years is the fact that road traffic deaths in India have more than quadrupled from around 36,000 per year to 1,50,000 per year. Hence, we have to change our approach to road safety week.
This is where the Haryana Government can take the lead. If cities such as Gurugram just concentrate on managing speed and making sure all roads have usable footpaths, even for a week, it will lead to wonders not only for improving road safety in the city but also help guide the annual road safety week observance.
Amit Bhatt is director, integrated transport, at WRI-India