Road Safety: ‘Terrorist’ In Our Driving Seat

When Ajmal Kasab, the biggest symbol of terrorism in free India’s history, was hanged in Yarvada jail, the entire nation took a sigh of relief. Kasab and his gang of terrorists killed 195 ordinary citizens within a few hours on ’26/11′ to make it the blackest day in the history of terrorism in modern India. Official statistics put terrorism related deaths at 43,311 during the last quarter century since 1988 when terror related violence in Punjab and Jammu-Kashmir erupted with full force. Putting all terrorism related deaths since 1947 together these figures touch a shocking 100,000 mark.
No surprise that terrorism today occupies the topmost place in the mind of ordinary Indian citizens and our opinion and policy makers. However, what is far more surprising is that almost the entire nation stands oblivious and aloof to a far more fatal ‘terrorism’ that has come to occupy our nation’s steering on our roads — literally. Statistics from the National Crime Record Bureau at the Centre and other agencies dealing with roads and traffic safety reveal that Indian drivers kill more people on our roads every year than all the terrorism related deaths in the past 60 years of free India put together.
In 2011 alone, the number of people who were killed due to someone’s mistake or carelessness on the Indian roads was 142,485. Speaking simple mathematics, at least two ’26/11’s happened every day on our roads with a daily average toll of 390 throughout last year. In addition, there were 511,394 ‘lucky’ individuals who survived in these accidents, but were left disabled temporarily or permanently for life due to their road crash injuries.
According to the Director, Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability at the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Etienne Krug, road crash injuries kill nearly 1.3 million people every year and the number may jump to 1.9 million in 2020 if road safety is not seriously attended to across the globe. In addition, there are 20 to 50 million people who suffer non-fatal injuries with many among them disabled permanently. Dr. Krug had an active role in launching 2011-2020 as the ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety’ by the WHO.
Underlining the economic and social cost of this reckless violence on the road, Dr. Krug refers to world trends in road traffic fatalities, “More than 41 per cent of those who are killed on roads belonged to the low income countries. Adding these death figures to the middle income countries shows that about 91.5 % of the victims of road crashes belong to non-rich countries. And almost half of the victims belong to vulnerable groups like pedestrians, cyclists and two-wheeler riders.” Figures show that over half of road victims are males in their youthful working years. This has a grave economic and social impact on the affected families.
Realising the social and national costs of fatalities in road accidents many governments have taken serious steps towards bringing down the number of road accidents and resulting fatalities in recent years. In addition to having already attended to the basic issues such as improving road designs, vehicle safety regulations and strong laws on issuing driving licences etc., many governments have made special efforts in implementing some specific road safety practices like compulsory wearing of seat-belt, helmets and child restraints, stricter monitoring of safe speed limits and alcohol monitoring through breath analysis.
Such steps have proved highly productive in terms of cost and benefit. For example, in Australia regular but random breath-testing to punish drivers under the influence of alcohol has resulted in a 36% drop in fatalities in New South Wales, 42 % in Tasmania and 40% in Victoria. According to the WHO, the cost-benefit ratio turned out to be an impressive 1:56 in this case.
But unfortunately, the situation is just the opposite in India where anything that could go wrong in road safety has actually gone wrong. Things have only gone worse with the improving vehicle buying capacities of the middle class Indian as a result of the ongoing economic boom. Right from road designing and maintenance of vital civic services such as street lighting or traffic signals to vehicle safety measures; from discipline in issuing driving licences to an effective policing of road discipline and; from developing a responsible outlook among individual drivers to corporate social responsibility (CSR) of vehicle manufacturers on issues like advertising and public education, hardly anything appears to be at the right place.
Although India has emerged as the most lucrative market for car and commercial vehicles in the world today, the CSR among the manufacturers is more conspicuous by its near total absence. It looks truer for the car and two-wheeler makers. In a country where driving license can be openly procured through bribe and personal influence, it looks strange that barring a handful exceptions like Maruti Suzuki, no other vehicle manufacturer could think of launching or sponsoring some high quality driving schools in a market where any prospective buyer is also a driver.
It is equally shocking to note that social icons like Shahrukh Khan see no moral or legal wrong doing in advertising a car by proving its ‘zing’ value by recklessly overtaking other vehicles on a congested road. Even Tata, a company which has won social accolades for its practices in CSR, decides to present is car more as a tool of fun on the road. In a much played TV ad, the marketing bosses of the company used a gang of merry making bunch of rich, young boys and girls who run almost amuck on a public road to play a game involving firing of something like ketchup on each others’ cars with their water guns?
Media’s awareness towards its role as a public educator too has become important only because of its near total absence on a serious public safety issue like road accidents. A recent study conducted by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) in Delhi, Jalandhar and Hyderabad discovered a serious lack of awareness among some most popular newspapers towards their social responsibility of improving road safety awareness while reporting road crashes. In some high profile road accidents like the BMW car accident and the Ludlow Castle School bus tragedy in Delhi, it was widely noticed that most of the TV channels were more focused on improving their own TRPs than analysing the socio-economic costs of such ghastly tragedies.
In most cities the performance of traffic police on improving road safety too leaves much to be desired. We notice some knee jerk and ad-hoc activism of traffic police against tinted glass windows or drunken driving only when events like gang rape in a running car or road rage by drunken sons of the rich and powerful become focus of media reports. Experts are now seriously suggesting that traffic governance on Indian roads should be entrusted to an independent traffic agency than leaving it to the mercy of musical chair games of crime police in most of our cities.
In a country where indifferent attitude of local civic authorities towards maintenance of roads and street lighting, utter lack of road sense among pedestrians and near total absence of social responsibility among the drivers lead to most of fatal accidents, it is time that archaic laws like ‘Motor Vehicle Act’ are replaced by a comprehensive ‘Road Safety Act’. At least some brakes shall be put on the ‘terrorist’ on the road.

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