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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Driving to safety

As fatalities rise, time has come to outsource road safety enforcement.

Written by Subhash Nagpal | Updated: December 26, 2017 12:20:36 am
Each year, the number of fatalities and injuries on the road ascends to a new adverse-high, even as media and public outcry is increasingly scant and episodic. (Photo for representation)

Why isn’t road safety taken seriously in India? If this is too presumptive and arbitrary a question, let us be precise. Why isn’t road safety taken seriously enough by most drivers and other road users, the government authorities concerned, and education institutions like schools and colleges?

We as a society have largely come to live with road accidents. Each year, the number of fatalities and injuries on the road ascends to a new adverse-high, even as media and public outcry is increasingly scant and episodic. Data on violations of road safety is getting repetitive and even boring — more than 400 deaths on roads every day, 17 deaths every hour, one death every three minutes.

It is noteworthy then that the road safety cause has received heightened attention, enhanced resources, and strengthened legislative and judicial support in the past few years. This push is unprecedented. But are we getting anywhere closer to decoding the mystery of this “giant” killer?

Road accidents are one of the few predominant killers of mankind (animals too), where causes of related fatalities are well established. It should therefore be easier to tackle each one of these known multi-causal factors. This, however, does not seem to be happening. The sincere and high optimism of the 2015 Brasilia Declaration, which called for 50 per cent reduction in road accidents, is fast slipping out of our hands, if not hearts. I would place this at the doors of the somewhat misplaced priority in the government’s approach to this huge crisis, and the not-so-inspiring (uninspiring) government processes. First, the Centre and the state governments’ response to the complex nature of the road safety jigsaw is mostly focused on long-term programmes. This distant vision approach is not clubbed with the immediate task of ensuring day-to-day safety on roads and highways. Second, the systems relating to ensuring effective road safety, from granting of driving licence to adherence to basic traffic norms, are riddled with age-old routine practices, lack of resources and modern tools, inefficiency, and corruption.

It may be high time to engage with a series of bold and innovative measures.

There should be little doubt that allowing only professionally trained and tested drivers on public roads will largely address the primary and predominant cause of road accidents. This will not materialise anytime soon if the licence-granting processes continue to be managed by government departments, even if some of the steps are computerised. One viable option is to outsource pre-driving education and training as well as scrutiny of the licence applications, including testing driving skills, to certain reputed private agencies. The latter part could be worked out on the lines of the successful VFS (visa facilitation services). The agency would examine various requirements, particularly completion of the prescribed driving training, medical fitness documentation, cross-checking knowledge of essential traffic rules, safety norms and driving ethics, driving skills including in odd conditions and sensitive zones, consideration for pedestrians and cyclists, among others. In light of the scrutiny and recommendations, the existing RTOs will have the final authority to grant or refuse a licence.

Similarly, undergoing a detailed pre-driving training and education programme for prescribed hours, should be mandatory. For the purpose, training schools can be selectively approved, both from the public and private sectors. Existing drivers, with appropriate exceptions, shall also have to go through the same process over a prescribed period.

The next measure should comprise of outsourcing certain highways, expressways, and important urban and rural roads for managing exhaustive road safety programmes. Duly authorised and backed by local police authorities, chartered private agencies should be tasked with undertaking routine and innovative measures to maintain exemplary safe conditions on the assigned roads. Their primary target will be reduction of traffic crashes by a certain minimum fixed percentage. These agencies will also provide for necessary intelligent tools and systems, manpower and other resources required in satisfactory fulfilment of their objectives. A robust refresher training programme for all road users must be built in such outsource-arrangements. This can be executed with the assistance of the driving schools and selected NGOs in various residential and institutional areas. Such joint ventures should also be encouraged to heavily rely on counselling as a tool of road safety awareness, and detaining of minor rules-violating vehicles for the entire day, in place of imposing ridiculously low fines.

Third, it would be equally important to run special road safety measures on the non-outsourced and the other known accident prone roads. This can be done by the local authorities by notifying such roads as

Zones of Excellence (ZoE) in road safety, and mounting detailed safe road efforts on a regular basis.

A sound concept of road safety would mean not only saving lives but delivering change too. As the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways notes, a safe road sector can support high growth rates of the Indian economy. The state governments in India need to break through the hapless situation and invent their own strategies and bring about positive change in the hitherto uncontrollable fatality numbers. India can no longer afford to be shy of unconventional and bold measures.

The writer is member, National Road Safety Council.

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