Road safety: Experts call for stringent medical checks before issuing driving licenses
Two recent incidents have brought to light the rather casual manner in which driving licenses are issued without conducting necessary medical tests. On August 31, 46-year-old Sameer Ali Sayyed drove his Maruti Suzuki Esteem right into a restaurant located on the busy Karnac Bunder street in South Mumbai killing five people and injuring three others. Sayyed had suffered an epileptic attack and had lost control over the vehicle.
It was not the first time when Sayyed was involved in such an accident. In May 2020, he suffered a similar attack and crashed his vehicle leaving a woman injured. Sayyed, at that time, had not revealed his medical condition to avoid his license from getting suspended.
More recently, on October 20, BEST bus driver Haridas Patil suffered a heart attack while he was driving the bus. Patil lost control over the vehicle which crashed into a signal post at Vasant Park near Chembur and also damaged a small vegetable shop. Luckily, nobody was injured in the accident.
India, which continued to top road accident deaths for the second consecutive year in 2019, is yet to have a stringent mechanism of testing the medical condition of driving license applicants. The process is stringent when it comes to most developed countries.
Bhushan Kumar Upadhyay, additional director general of Maharashtra highway police said, “Although, accidents due to medical conditions of the driver may comprise a small portion of the overall road accidents numbers but it’s a serious issue and cannot be ignored. Medical conditions impact drivers physically as well as mentally, it may (indirectly) contribute to the circumstances that lead to accidents.”
Former Director-General of Maharashtra Police Dr PS Pasricha, who was also chairman of the All India Road Safety Committee, said, “Road safety system in our country has always been affected by a very casual approach. There are some sections in the existing road transport laws and rules which need to be seriously reviewed. Medical fitness certification is one of them.”
“We do not have a system in place that can identify a driving license holder with an unfit medical condition. While that can be a problem with many other countries, and not just India, it doesn’t mean that nothing can be done for effective prevention of accidents that occur due to the medical condition of drivers. We can simply do it by making the pre-license issuing procedure more rigorous.”
The duties of drivers and riders, as defined under the Motor Vehicles (Driving) Regulations, 2017 states, “The driver shall ensure that at the time of driving a vehicle, he is in full control of his physical and mental abilities and physically and mentally fit to drive a vehicle.” It reflects when a Regional Transport Officer from Mumbai, requesting anonymity, questioned, “Why would a medically unfit person take to driving in the first place and risk his/her own life?”
An RTO officer, who requested anonymity, explained the existing system and said, “An applicant seeking a driving license to drive a private car or a motorcycle (not commercial/transport/heavy vehicle), need to just submit a self-declaration (Form-1 which covers physical fitness and eyesight effectiveness in seven points) declaring that he/she is fit to drive a non-commercial vehicle. The applicant need not produce a medical fitness certificate issued by a medical practitioner. The applicant would be granted a driving license for 20-years after duly following all the procedures.” Only those applicants who are above 50-years of age and applying for a fresh driving license would have to submit a medical fitness certificate, compulsorily, he added.
Applicants seeking a driving license to drive a transport vehicle or a commercial vehicle have to compulsorily submit both - self-declaration and medical certificate and at both the stages (while freshly applying for license and at the time of renewal), he further said.
A senior transport official, who has been very active in road safety initiatives, on the condition of anonymity said that the procedure and the system to check the medical fitness of a driver while issuing the license is very ineffective, casual, non-stringent and outdated.
“Commercial vehicles or transport vehicles (except hazardous chemical vehicles) drivers need to submit the medical certificate to get a license but after getting the license, the driver undergoes medical examination/review for fitness only after five years at the time of the renewal of the license. What if he develops any serious medical condition between those five years, putting his own and others lives at risk?” the officer questioned.
The existing rules say that only those applicants are eligible to get a driving license who, at the time of the driving test, manage to convince the officer that they have a “sound mind” and “sound physical fitness”.
Vinayak Joshi, an expert in defensive driving said, “With the help of the agents (outside RTO) driving license seekers in Mumbai easily get a medical certificate from a ‘doctor’ practising right outside the RTO office in just Rs 50. Because of such unprofessional, unethical and corrupt practices, there is no strict scrutiny as far as the medical fitness of the applicant is concerned. He/she is given a fitness certificate based on his/her physical appearance. No serious inspection, study or analysis of his/her medical history is done that can probably put light on his inability to drive a vehicle, or need for a medical review.”
“How can the system expect from an RTO officer to make such an important observation in a person without having any expertise? To ascertain whether an individual has a sound mind his/her psychological profiling and analysis is required and only medical professionals would be able to assess it. Also, medical professionals can also understand if an applicant is short-tempered. Determining such conditions is very important as it could turn any small incident into a major road rage situation. Remember, driving is not just a skill but also an attitude,” says Sanjay Sasane, deputy regional transport officer, Pune.
A driver should also have a strong sixth sense or foresight. RTO officers are not qualified to determine whether an individual seeking a license has these important abilities or not, Sasane added.
General Practitioners (GP) are bound to report ‘at-risk’ drivers in countries like the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, Hungary, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Sweden.
Dr Pasricha said, “There should be a legal obligation on the doctors to report unfit medical conditions of a driver to the RTO as a preventive measure but, again, the matter of breach of privacy would arise. So, this issue needs some brainstorming to arrive at a solution that would bring legal obligation on doctors and, at the same time, to ensure that the privacy of a patient is not breached.”
“The government need to form a team which can study the rules and laws related to medical standards for the assessment of the fitness of the driver of other countries and pick up their best practices to suit our needs,” added Pasricha.