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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Good road sense

This winter session, Parliament must pass the Road Transport and Safety Bill.

Written by G K Pillai |
Updated: December 3, 2014 8:16:55 am
Harsh penalties have been prescribed for those who ignore safety during design, engineering and maintenance of roads. Harsh penalties have been prescribed for those who ignore safety during design, engineering and maintenance of roads.

The decade leading up to the present government’s formation has seen carnage on Indian roads. At the very least, 12 lakh people have been killed and close to 55 lakh left seriously injured or permanently disabled due to road crashes. The majority of victims were of productive age (between 15-50) and scores were their families’ sole breadwinners. Road accidents cause an annual economic loss of 3 per cent of the GDP. Despite this, the issue had not seen any concerted action to address it. Not anymore. The government hopes to pass the Road Transport and Safety Bill, 2014, to replace the archaic Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, this winter session.

The causes of our high rate of road crashes include bad road-user behaviour, catalysed by a faulty licensing system, poor road design and engineering, with low probability of prosecution for lapses, and weak enforcement of inadequate traffic laws, which have been anything but a deterrent. The new bill attempts to tackle most of these issues.

At the outset, it addresses the fundamental lack of a framework to monitor and sustain road safety. Presently, the country has no dedicated agency for road safety and, therefore, no one to monitor, intervene or be held accountable.

The bill proposes the establishment of a dedicated national authority for road safety, which will be able to create and monitor goals for reducing road accidents as well as command adequate resources to undertake meaningful interventions. It has been given powers to issue and maintain standards for all aspects related to road safety. These range from protection of vulnerable road users to measures for in-vehicle safety and standards for road design and engineering. Such standards will ensure uniformity and cohesiveness while dealing with the issue nationally.

Another significant proposal is the introduction of a unified driver-licensing system. One of our biggest challenges is the compromised licensing system — a major source of corruption and inefficiency. The system has allowed almost anyone a licence to drive without proper vetting, training or testing. The new system aims to remove corruption by mapping the licensing process, building capacity to ensure proper documentation and testing, and taking away the subjectivity with which regional transport offices operate. A unified system will reduce the probability of drivers carrying multiple licences and help in keeping track of offences committed by a driver. This would, however, be useful only if every existing licence holder is also moved to the new system in a smooth and efficient manner. Outsourcing, successfully implemented in the case of passport seva kendras, for instance, could be instrumental in building capacity and improving efficiency of the proposed system.

An interesting aspect of the new bill is its focus on enhancing enforcement. It expands the list of common offences and also brings within its ambit the usually ignored causes of road crashes, such as bad road design and engineering. Harsh penalties have been prescribed for those who ignore safety during the design, engineering and maintenance of roads. It also specifies four types of penalties: demerit points on licences, which can lead to suspension or cancellation, high cash fines in keeping with the danger to life and property posed by irresponsible driving, jail terms and mandatory retraining.

To tackle corruption, the bill mandates electronic enforcement in jurisdictions with a population of more than 10 lakh. Such measures will significantly enhance the probability of offenders getting caught, remove corruption by making enforcement mostly humanless or “contact-free” and ensure higher collection of fines by states.

The bill also does what the Motor Vehicles Act has failed to do: protect the non-motorised road user. It provides for each state to develop and implement a policy for such users, including pedestrians, cyclists and rickshaws. It also mandates the creation of a National Transport Authority, which will work to seamlessly connect all modes of transport and define safety and quality standards for sustainable public transport.

The implementation of the new law will be undertaken by state governments and this bill has much to offer them, through revenue protection and funding. Several states have welcomed the bill and one can only hope that they will continue to support it and earnestly implement the new law once it has been passed by Parliament.

The bill presents a unique opportunity to save thousands of lives each year and, at the same time, improve ways in which people and goods move across India. If the Modi government is able to pass this bill in Parliament and ensure thorough enforcement of the act, it will be a great gift of life to the millions of Indians who would otherwise perish or be disabled in road crashes.

The writer, former Union home secretary, is a trustee of SaveLIFE Foundation

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