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This neglect is tragic

For all the knowledge on the need for road safety, the issue has not permeated the public consciousness, writes Ramachandra Guha.

columns Updated: Sep 24, 2013 01:49 IST

Here is a striking if little-noticed fact: in terms of deaths caused annually, terrorism and diseases such as malaria pale into insignificance when compared to road traffic accidents. Over the last decade, a few thousand Indians have lost their lives as a consequence of terror attacks. An estimated 15,000 people die every year due to malaria. But 1.2 lakh Indians lose their lives each year on the roads. And 10 times that number is seriously injured.

Although India accounts for only 1% of registered motor vehicles on the globe, Indians account for 9% of deaths caused by traffic accidents worldwide. Thirteen Indians die every hour on the roads. The economic cost of road traffic accidents has been calculated to be some `7 lakh crore a year. These figures are based only on recorded or reported accidents; the actual figures are likely to be much higher, as many accidents take place on rural roads and are never brought to the attention of the police or the district authorities.

To these statistics one must add the unquantifiable emotional costs of deaths and injuries on the roads. There are the difficulties of coping with the unexpected, tragic, loss of a loved one. There are the financial burdens imposed by the death of an earning member (often the sole earning member) of the family. (Notably, some 85% of victims are men in the prime of their life, falling in the age group 20-50 years.)

There are the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who lose a limb or are paralysed as a result of road accidents. To rehabilitate them for some kind of ordinary life imposes huge burdens on their families, and on the wider society as well.

How can we make our roads safer? How can we bring down the number of accidents, the number of deaths? Good laws, and the prompt and fair enforcement of these laws, are the key to resolving the problem. Studies have shown that the wearing of seat-belts in cars can reduce the risk of death by 50% and more. Likewise with helmets and motorcycles. In India, however, these laws are haphazardly enforced. A study by the

World Health Organization on road safety gave India two points (on a scale of zero to 10) on the enforcement of laws with regard to seat-belts, helmets, and drunken driving. In other countries, the incidence of deaths and injuries in road accidents has been massively brought down by prompt legal and official action. In India, however, deaths through road traffic accidents have been steadily increasing, at nearly 8% a year — chiefly because central and state governments are apathetic bystanders.

Late last year, in a brave, public-spirited bid to compel the authorities to act, the then president of the Indian Orthopaedic Association filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court. This charged the Government of India — and its departments of road transport and highways, home affairs, health, and human resources development in particular — of negligence in the question of road safety. The massive number of road deaths and injuries, the petition contended, were caused principally by the ‘ineffectual implementation of laws, the lack of sufficient public education, the appalling condition of infrastructural facilities [that] have resulted in depriving citizens of their lives: a condition which is manifestly violative of Article 21 of the Constitution of India’ (which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty).

The petition filed in the Supreme Court calls for the government to finally recognise and address this grave national problem. It asks, among other things, for the government to prescribe harsher punishment for drunken drivers who cause fatal accidents; move an amendment to the insurance laws to compel companies to pay money quickly to the injured, when it is most urgently needed, rather than (as is their wont) to prevaricate and delay; pay closer attention to the design of better and safer roads; create a central apex body for road safety ‘which has the power and the authority to co-ordinate the activities and monitor the performance of the various departments, enact suitable laws and enforce them, periodically review and declare its performance to the public’.

The dangers of travelling on Indian roads have been known in specialist circles for some time. Scholars such as Dinesh Mohan and his colleagues at IIT-Delhi have worked extensively on the subject ( A recent study of the RTO’s office in Delhi showed that some 80% of those with licences had never taken a driving test.

These scientific studies are borne out by personal impressions. Bad, aggressive and careless driving is ubiquitous on Indian roads. Whereas in other countries the traffic signal turning to amber makes drivers slow down, here it urges them to accelerate, regardless of the threat this poses to other vehicles, and to pedestrians. The traffic police are sleepy and apathetic; slow to catch or detain offenders (but quick to let them off in exchange for a bribe).

For all this knowledge anecdotal and scientific, the issue of road safety has not really permeated the public consciousness. It is rarely discussed in newspapers or on television. The government is callously indifferent to the matter. Thus, as Dinesh Mohan writes, “road traffic injuries are the only public health problem where society and decision makers still accept death and disability on a large scale”. This neglect is tragic, when one considers that so many more Indians die in road accidents than they do due to terrorist violence or infectious diseases. One hopes that the PIL currently being heard in the Supreme Court will finally bring this major national problem to wider attention.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include India after GandhiThe views expressed by the author are personal