By: G.K. Pillai
We need a comprehensive law for all aspects of traffic safety.
On April 22, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment on road safety, appointing a panel to suggest measures to curb road accidents in the country, calling the issue a “giant killer”. That same morning, three-year-old Lineshya, who was waiting for her school bus outside her home in Gurgaon, and her father, Pankaj Gupta, a 44-year-old cardiologist, had been crushed to death by a speeding Haryana Roadways bus. The driver of the bus secured bail the same day, even as Lineshya’s mother was being hospitalised for shock.
In the last few days alone, several shocking incidents serve to highlight the pathetic state of road safety in India. In Delhi, a few nights ago, three CRPF women troopers were killed when a truck crashed into their bus, seven were killed when a truck hit their jeep on the Cuttack-Chandbali state highway in Orissa, and six people were burnt to death in Karnataka last week, when the bus they were travelling in caught fire near Davanagere village. These are not isolated incidents. In the past decade, over one million people in India have been killed in road accidents. Fifteen continue to die every hour. Every day, more than 20 children under the age of 14 are killed in road accidents in India.
Despite the monumental loss of life on India’s roads every day, some of the key questions around the issue are being ignored. Is there political and administrative will in the country to take on this epidemic? Are lessons being learned from incidents like the ones mentioned above and action taken to prevent them? Are officers responsible for road safety across India being held accountable for the increasing number of deaths and injuries? Are the current laws and enforcement mechanisms sufficient to deal with the menace of road accidents in India? Evidently not.
Despite India leading the world in road accident deaths, road safety remains a low priority for most political formations and governments. The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, seen as the principal legislation on road safety, has failed to protect and regulate the different types of road users in our country. Even minor amendments proposed to the act during the last few Parliament sessions could not see the light of day and lapsed with the close of the 15th Lok Sabha. A new draft of the act, submitted in 2011 by an expert committee under the chairmanship of S. Sunder, a former Union transport secretary, was never introduced in Parliament.
The need of the hour is an overarching framework under which road safety can be implemented. Standalone initiatives, done without proper legislative backing and often in silos, are no longer effective. The new government needs to look at the issue with the seriousness and attention it deserves. A more comprehensive road safety law is urgently needed. The current set of statutes is unable to regulate or protect more than 50 per cent of road users, including cyclists, pedestrians and children. They are also the ones who bear the brunt of most road accidents. Even areas that the current laws cover need to be reviewed and overhauled. How is it that defensive driving training is not mandatory for acquiring a licence? How is it that drivers can carry multiple licences? Is the current accident investigation system advanced enough to gauge all the potential causes of an accident? Can technology-based enforcement play a better role than the current mechanisms? Should there be a single lead agency for road safety in India, which can coordinate with the diverse players involved in road safety? These are questions that must be answered urgently and given legislative backing.
In early 2014, Maya Barra, General Motors’s newest CEO, stepped into the limelight when she apologised for deaths linked to the delayed recall of 2.6 million small cars. These had caused an estimated 13 deaths in the past few years due to faulty ignition switches. For these 13 deaths, the entire company went through a restructuring and is being thoroughly investigated by the justice department and Barra was questioned by the United States Congress on several occasions. For the 119 deaths caused by government buses in Haryana in 2012 alone, and more than 4,000 deaths caused by government buses across India, who is paying the price? For the moment, it appears to be Lineshya and thousands like her.
The writer is former Union home secretary and trustee of SaveLIFE Foundation, a road safety think-tank