Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Unfortunately, the revelation about the safety of our children is not something we can be proud of. Every day, numerous children fall prey to road accidents. One cannot forget the tragic incident of March 4, 2013, when 12 children were killed and another eight injured in Jalandhar, when a truck collided with their minibus. On October 13, 2015, a school bus overturned in Uttar Pradesh, grievously injuring over 12 children.
This year, Children’s Day arrived amid statistics on the staggering number of children lost in road crashes. In 2014 alone, 16,901 children were killed in road crashes in India. This is nearly 675 per cent more than the reported deaths of children from all crimes against them put together. By the end of the day, almost 50 innocent children would have been killed in preventable road accidents.
The increasing number of incidents involving the deaths of children in road crashes reveals not only the lack of awareness but also the existing policy gaps with regard to road safety, especially the safety of vulnerable road users like children.
The problem is not only visible human factors, such as a lack of respect for pedestrians and rash driving, but also the current legislative framework that doesn’t incorporate comprehensive provisions for ensuring a safe commute for children. For instance, the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, doesn’t necessitate the use of child restraints in four-wheelers, which can be extremely effective in reducing injuries and deaths. Regarding two-wheelers, although the act provides for protective headgear for both driver and pillion rider, it doesn’t lay down the much-needed standards for child helmets and the provision, therefore, is hardly implemented vis-a-vis children. Moreover, the act gives state governments the power to make additional rules in this regard and several state motor vehicle rules have further diluted helmet requirements by specifically excluding children from the category. The Central legislation is completely silent on ensuring safety of children in non-motorised transport, which is the more frequently used mode of transport for thousands of children.
It’s surprising that a country which has eradicated polio and eliminated neonatal tetanus in the last one year has failed to protect its children from preventable road deaths. If policymakers and the public act together, this epidemic too can be eradicated. There’s a lot to learn from international experiences.
The “safe routes to school” programmes in the US and UK, and the iWalks Club in Canada are noteworthy initiatives that make roads travelled by children safer and accessible by improving the infrastructure and limiting motor traffic in school zones. We must take simple, yet effective measures, such as reclaiming neighbourhood streets for children, in order to prevent tragic incidents of children being mowed down by rash traffic. Places frequented by children, specifically near schools, parks and at specified times of day, should be identified as “child zones” and a duty should be imposed on all drivers to strictly obey traffic rules, including lower speed limits. School buses should be put in special categories of vehicles with stricter procedures for issuing of licences and compulsory training for drivers. Since children mostly travel accompanied by adults, it’s important to make institutions like schools and adults accountable for ensuring the safety of children on the road, including safe commutes to school. Last and most important, the legislative framework should take child safety into account by ensuring stricter penalties for traffic offences involving children and ensuring compliance with minimum safety standards.
The government has started taking measures in these directions through the current deliberations on the road transport and safety bill. Although the final contours of the draft bill are not known, we hope that it will address the crucial concern — children’s safety during commute — in a comprehensive manner. We need to prioritise the safety of our children on roads by introducing strong and comprehensive legislation in the upcoming winter session
Kher is a member of Parliament and Tewari is the founder and CEO of SaveLIFE Foundation