BJP leader Gopinath Munde’s death in a road accident has abruptly awoken those in power to this quiet crisis. Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has spoken of making rear seatbelts mandatory — but the fact that even this patently necessary precaution has not been enforced so far is a telling example of India’s attitude to road safety. Each accident is an isolated tragedy, but collectively, they are a public health emergency crying for policy attention. Indian roads are among the most dangerous in the world, responsible for one out of every 10 traffic-related deaths, and these have been rising steadily every year. Cars race with bullying trucks, motorcycles lurch and weave, pedestrians and drivers seem unaware of the rules, and insensitive civic design can pose its own dangers.
The crush of traffic is only going to worsen and public safety interventions are essential to keep up with the growing pressure. Accidents on the road are disproportionately harmful to the poor — cyclists, pedestrians, and the homeless are most vulnerable. Small changes in transport management can bring about enormous drops in fatalities — clear signs and road delineations, accessible thoroughways, overbridges and underpasses. A comprehensive road safety plan must focus on public awareness, as well as a strict enforcement and penalty regime. Apart from changes in physical infrastructure, safety features on cars and bikes, helmets and tail-lights, reflecting surfaces, and better fencing, quality human monitoring is crucial. When drivers are perfunctorily trained and licences can be bought, there is little likelihood we can be made more secure.
While India still lacks a country-wide road safety regime, there have been improvements when policymakers see the need for an overhaul. Tamil Nadu was the first state to announce a road safety policy in 2007, and uses a GIS-aided accident data management system. This data has been analysed to identify high-frequency points on the road, and crash types — for instance, whether drunk driving is the cause at certain times. This information is then used to decide on specific interventions. Road deaths are rarely seen as the responsibility of any one agency, but we need a dedicated, large-scale policy response to make our towns safer.