India has a dubious record of having the most road traffic accidents and fatalities in the world, barring China. There are over five lakh accidents every year. In 2015, 1,46,133 people were killed on our roads. Maharashtra, the state I represent, had the second highest number of accidents (63,805) and the third highest number of fatalities (13,212). These are staggering numbers. Road traffic accidents have no single cause. There is a myriad of contributing factors: Lacunae in road design, poor quality and maintenance, inadequate safety features in vehicles and dangerous driver behaviour. Undisciplined driving is itself a result of decades of weak enforcement.
Each of these feeds into the other, creating a deadly concoction. Rising income levels, heavy dependence on road transport (for intercity travel and freight movement), poor public transport and pedestrian infrastructure in cities have magnified these problems, resulting in this daily carnage.
The complexity of the issues and the multitude of agencies responsible for road safety has meant that it is easy to pass the buck. The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 is a Central law, while the agencies for enforcement, the police and the RTOs, are state-controlled. The enforcement of basic laws, such as traffic violations, is resisted by the public and the police often face a backlash with no political support. Wider roads coupled with more powerful vehicles have increased reckless driving — very significant reasons for not only more accidents, but also more severe ones.
So, how do we stop this “massacre on the roads” and get these numbers moving downwards? The mantra has to be for each stakeholder to stop blaming the other and do what they need to do. Auto manufacturers need to meet global safety standards and not blame road quality or driver behaviour, the police need to enforce the law and not blame the RTO for granting licences without proper testing, the National Highways Authority of India and the various PWDs need to focus on better road design, and engineering, and cities need to aggressively improve public transport and non-motorised transport infrastructure and curb use of private vehicles.
Finally, vehicle operators need to follow traffic rules, wear helmets and seat belts and not blame corrupt officials or cite traffic congestion for their behaviour.
The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill 2017 is on the anvil and we, the parliamentarians, need to do what we ought to do — pass the bill and ensure that the right provisions for improving road safety become the law. Penal provisions need to be made stricter. Fines, currently set at 1988 levels, need to be revised to make them an effective deterrent. Petrol prices have increased 10-fold in this period; so, an increase of fines by five times is eminently justified.
Since speeding is a leading cause of accidents and deaths, limiting the speeds or acceleration capability of vehicles manufactured for use in India must be set by the law. Drunken driving is a serious offence and must be effectively stamped out. The government must consider allowing random sobriety tests and reducing allowable blood alcohol levels for young and novice drivers to 20 mg per 100 ml of blood. A scientific investigation of road crashes and criminal liability of officials and contractors found responsible for poor road quality is also essential.
Road traffic accidents spare no one, be they rich or poor, urban or rural, young or old, man or woman or of any caste or religion. We, the legislators, therefore, need to take tough decisions which are in the best interest of the country.
A tough law is not the end, but only the beginning of reforms that are needed to halve road traffic accidents by 2020, a commitment we have made by adopting the Brasilia Declaration for Road Safety.