Risky rides

Road safetyAs India becomes the road accident Capital of the world, the Government has been seen to only whittle down road safety proposals in drafts after drafts, obviously coming under the pressure of the moneyed road contractor, the auto industry and other lobbies, finds out SANGEETA YADAV

On June 3, 2014, Gopinath Munde, on his way to the airport early morning, was fatally hit by an over-speeding cab. Munde’s liver’s ruptured and he had cervical fracture which cut off oxygen supply to his brain, leading to cardiac arrest. The accused, 32-year-old driver Gurvinder Singh, was arrested. This high-profile accident in Delhi, yet again highlighted the urgent need for road safety. Worldwide, road accidents are expected to be the fifth leading cause of death by 2030. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 1.37 lakh people were killed and 4.7 lakh injured in road accidents in India in 2013. This implies more than 375 people being killed in road crashes daily.

Such alarming figures give India the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of road accidents in the world — claiming a life every 3.7 minutes. The Centre for Science and Environment Assessment last year tells you how Delhi tops the country in fatal road accidents.

“There are six reasons leading to road accidents — over speeding, drink and driving, using the mobile phone while driving, not wearing helmets in two-wheelers, not wearing seat belts in cars and jumping traffic signals. To prevent this and get sustainable change in the people’s attitude towards road safety, the Government should run campaigns around these six areas for at least three months in every city. We do have big commercial campaigns during the Road Safety Week but it goes into oblivion in a week or so,” Dr Noel  Kanagaraj, managing trustee, Indian Road Safety and Welfare Trust, Chennai, says.

He recently released a guide Learner’s Basic Safety Driving Theory. Post Munde’s death, four issues were highlighted for a strong road safety law.

“First was, the style of driving which is very rash and unethical, leading to a lot of accidents. Second issue is the lack of law enforcement. Third, and the most neglected and least talked about issue is the corruption and resultant problems in the road design and engineering fields. Fourth but not the least is minimum safety standards in engineering and automobile design,” Piyush Tewari, who founded SaveLIFE Foundation after the death of a young family member in a road accident in 2008, tells you.

Most accidents are triggered by driver’s faults. The 2011 Road Accidents in India report, released by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, says that 4.97 lakh road accidents were reported that year causing more than 1,42,485 deaths. Nearly 80 per cent of these were caused due to negligent driving. The need of the hour is to improve the quality and standard of drivers and evaluate their skills regularly.

“Most drivers don’t know road language and traffic signs, basic technical features of various types of vehicle and the penalties for flouting the norm. There should be an education drive for all drivers telling them about road safety measures and cautioning them about what they should not do,” Kanagaraj says.

The reports say that through education and enforcement of safety rules and awareness campaigns, over 70 per cent fatalities can be reduced. There is no age bar to learn road safety norms and driving ethics. In Australia, kindergarden children are taught road safety. They have songs on road safety on how to cross the road and do’s and don’ts on the road. This way, the thought gets into their mind in their early years.

“Fundamental education must be imparted in schools. Earlier the education, less the number of road fatalities. Students from Classes VI to X should be taught road safety as part of curriculum. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has introduced the syllabus in the curriculum but we don’t know how much has been implemented or is being taught. There should be a separate focus by school authorities and the Government,” Kanagaraj says.

The Regional Transport Office (RTO) which is responsible for issuing licences is the first step towards approving quality drivers. If that doesn’t function properly, the problems will only increase.

“The RTO is the starting point of problems because they issue driving licences to people without testing them properly. An untrained person behind the wheel is a like handing a gun to a person who doesn’t know how to use it properly. Result, people will get killed. The cause for this bad driving culture in India is because of two factors — driving licence and driver training system come under the Government and these have been compromised. You can get a driving licence home-delivered in most States and learning how to drive is not mandatory before you get your hands on the wheel. That leads to a lot of untrained and unfiltered drivers coming on our roads,” Tewari points out.

Besides, in the last few years, uncertified driving institutes have cropped up promising to teach driving in a week’s time and guaranteeing easy procurement of licence. Some institutes tell you that they will teach you how to drive in a week’s time with an hour’s training each day. Here too, one doesn’t know how much a person is learning because the trainer keeps the controls with him.

Special Commissioner of Police, Traffic, Muktesh Chander stressed on the recent guidelines laid down by the Centre to keep a check on training institutes.

“These include accreditation to Institute of Driving Training and Research (IDTRs) or Driving Training Institute (DTI), for issuing of permanent driving licences and compulsory training before issuance of permanent driving licence for commercial vehicle drivers. The proposal also includes improvement of vahan and sarathi software to capture legacy data, traffic violations and detection of fake licences. It also instructs putting in place objective and mandatory systems of vehicle fitness through accredited Inspection and Certification (I&C) Centres for audit purpose,” Chander says.

The existing driving schools have been told to set up an evaluation system for licenced drivers.

“These institutes should have guidelines on how to train  and then frequently evaluate how the new drivers are doing. The authorities should make sure that the training institutes are equipped with the right technology, training material, trainers and have a common evaluation system in each State,” Kanagaraj demands.

The Delhi Traffic Police frequently conducts workshops on road safety in schools and colleges and has also tied up with Honda Motorcycle, Scooter India Pvt Ltd (HMSI) and Yamaha Motor India Sales Pvt Ltd for road safety training programmes. From exhibitions, CSR initiatives and safety drives to road shows, short films and marathons, a lot of activities are happening around spreading awareness. Recently, Mercedes-Benz inaugurated a road show — Safe Roads — to educate people on traffic safety through demonstrations, visual aids and research reports. The other multi-pronged strategies taken by the Government to improve road safety include setting up road safety fund at the State-level and setting aside 50 per cent fines collected for traffic violations.

The core factor for a large number of road accidents is lax enforcement.

“Globally it has been proven that enforcement works better than mere education. Ideally both should be done but enforcement works better in preventing road accidents. For instance, most people are aware that driving without a helmet or seat belt is illegal. In most cases, the driver flouts these rules and gets away scot-free due a lax enforcement system sitting on a mound of corruption. Enforcement in India is under the Government and entirely human dependent. Therefore, it is marred by corruption and capacity constraints,” Tewari says.

Add to this, faulty road designs, engineering and bad maintenance.

“India doesn’t follow the globally accepted Safe System Approach. It is a concept that takes into account that human beings are not perfect and they are bound to make errors. Roads should be designed and engineered to take in the possibility of human error. For instance, the left lane in India is shared by buses and cyclists. So you have the biggest motorised vehicle and the most vulnerable road user fighting for the same space. In the safe system approach, the two will be segregated and no interaction will be allowed between them so that the accidents can be minimised,” Tewari tells you.

If somebody is met with an accident, not many come forward to help. The first aid service takes time to reach the victim, people around can help by taking immediate action. According to a national survey done by SaveLIFE Foundation, three out of four people are reluctant to come forward to help an injured person. A majority of them fear police harassment, detention at hospitals and prolonged legal formalities.

“When the accident takes place, the delay in trauma care can lead to many deaths. The Supreme Court has sent out three important directives to save lives: Anyone can help accident victims to reach hospitals, police will not ask you any questions and doctors should attend to accident victims immediately. It’s a major area where people are not bothered to help. This is mostly because they fear that if they get involved, the cops will harass them. The first aid and ambulance service should be quick too,” Kanagaraj explains.

As per the recent guidelines issued by the SC on the case filed by SaveLIFE Foundation in 2012, the disclosure of personal information by a good samaritan who brings an injured person to the hospital is voluntary. The person shall not be liable for any civil or criminal action and any Government official who attempts to intimidate him shall face action.

There is a larger issue that brought focus back on Governing bodies not working in tandem.

“While the driver’s training and licence come in the gambit of the transport department, reinforcement falls under the police zone and road engineering in four to five different departments like municipality roads to NCI, vehicle engineering in the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises and trauma care under the Health department. You have five to seven departments which either don’t work or work solo. There is no system in place that can make them work together,” Tewari points out.

The first draft of the Road Transport and Safety Bill was released for public opinion on September 13, 2014 right after Munde’s death. Since then, three more drafts have been released by the Ministry. According to the latest draft, statutes to hold road contractors, automobile manufactures, transporters and rash drivers accountable have been watered down. The independence of the proposed road safety authority, too, has been curtailed.

“The Government’s first draft addressed the issues of faulty licence, faulty training, enforcement or engineering but did not create a framework under which all these people could work together. The Bill also proposed the creation of a National Road Safety Authority to bring all the governing bodies under one umbrella. The powerful lobbies of road contractors, truck owners, RTO agents and auto manufacturers openly opposed this. Hence, it has been significantly diluted,” Tewari explains.

Tewari also tells you that the proposal for a strong road safety law has no political will.

“In the first draft, death or disability due to faulty road design engineering carried a Rs10 lakh fine and a year’s jail term for the road contractor. In the latest version, the jail term has been removed and the fine has been brought down to Rs1 lakh for death and Rs50,000 for disability. For faulty vehicle design leading to death, the earlier fine was Rs5 lakh per faulty vehicle which has been brought down to Rs50,000 which is nothing for a car manufacturer.  An insurance claim cap of Rs15 lakh is set towards death and disability caused in road accidents.

“The vehicle recall policy that the Government had proposed was opposed by the Indian automobile industry and the Government diluted it too. The penalty of jumping a traffic light has been brought down to Rs500 from Rs2,500. For over speeding, the penalty has been brought down from Rs15,000 to Rs2,000. For not wearing a helmet, the penalty has been brought down from Rs5,000 to Rs500 which marks a major cause of head injury deaths of two wheelers. The provision for ensuring removal of liquor shops from highways is missing,” Tewari says.

There is concern over the proposal on shifting important road safety elements from Act to Rules.

“The Government statement of April 2015 talks about shifting most road safety elements out of the Act and into the Rules section. This is going to be disastrous because the moment you put something out of an Act, you effectively taking away the force of the law from it and you are making it subject to extreme discussionary changes. If they go ahead with that plan, it will be disaster for road safety,” Tewari says.

Though the Motor Vehicle Act has clauses for drunk driving and over speeding, it doesn’t include provisions for pedestrians, cyclists and others.

“The Motor Vehicle Act (MVA) is only concerned with 50 per cent of motorised users. It ignores the remaining 50 per cent which are the most vulnerable road users. There is no provision for protection of children, pedestrians or cyclists. It has no clause to hold road contractors, automobile manufacturers and RTOs accountable. So the MVA is a very deficient piece of legislation,” Tewari says.

In order to ensure that our roads are safe, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive and strong safety legislation that addresses and protects all road users and established minimum safety standards for roads, road users and vehicle.

Timeline of Road Transport & Safety Bill

  • June 5, 2014: Minister of Road, Transport and Highways announces a new legislation to replace the current Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, which is to be drafted in a month’s time.
  • September 13, 2014: The first draft of the Road Transport and Safety Bill, 2014 (RTSB) is released with comprehensive provisions on safety standards for road users, roads and vehicles and management of road safety in India.
  • October 18, 2014: Promise to include the provision for removal of liquor shops on highways.
  • October 28, 2014: At the 15th Meeting of the National Road Safety Council and the 36th Meeting of the Transport Development Council, RTSB talked of as an initiative in the direction of multi-modal transport systems sensitive to the safety of users.
  • December 11, 2014: Second draft RTSB released.
  • January 12, 2015: The proposed RTSB propelled as a way to improve the state of road safety in India and ensure that no one gets a licence through manipulation.
  • January 19, 2015: Third draft of the RTSB is released with rationalised penalties and, among other things, revision to the provisions on the creation and powers of the National Authority.
  • February 5, 2015: At the meeting of the Consultative Committee of the MPs, several States oppose the RTSB fearing that they would lose the right to collect road tax. They criticise the establishment of the National Road Safety Authority of India which, according to them, encroached on transport, a State subject.
  • February 20, 2015: The fourth draft of the RTSB released with significant dilution. The provision for an independent selection committee for appointing the chairperson and members of the National Authority is dropped and the Centre assumes the responsibility for appointment to National Authority, taking away independence in selection.
  • March 31, 2015: At an event in Bengaluru, the Minister says that RTSB would be introduced in Parliament when the Budget Session resumes in April.
  • April 5, 2015: Road transporters, under the banner of centrally affiliated federations and also those independently functioning, call for a countrywide one-day strike on April 30 to protest against the RTSB.
  • April 27, 2015: In reply to a Parliamentary Question raised by Dr KD Singh in the RS, whether there is a Bill providing for stringent punishment for violation of traffic rules, the Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways stated that the penalties in the Bill would be finalised only after it is passed by Parliament, effectively proposing a shift of safety elements from the Act to Rules.

(The article was published in The Pioneer Newspaper – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/special/risky-rides.html)

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