Two tragic deaths have brought the focus back on road crashes. On the night of April 4, Sidharth Sharma was doing what millions of Indians do on a daily basis, trying to cross a road. He was killed by a speeding Mercedes allegedly driven by an underage driver. CCTV images show him being careful, looking left and right before crossing the road.
Veenu Paliwal, who found her calling driving bikes, lost her life when her bike skidded and hit a culvert in Vidisha, MP, on April 11.
In India, over 1,40,000 people die and more than 5,00,000 suffer serious injuries every year in road crashes. The solution, however, lies with the government. In fact, the Centre had drafted a Road Transport and Safety Bill in 2014 to revamp the system and tackle the issue systematically and comprehensively.
Sharma’s case is not isolated. In December 2015, the minister of state for transport, P. Radhakrishnan, had stated that between 2012-14, there were 60,000 cases of accidents caused by underage drivers. The legal provision to deal with this is weak. Under the existing Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, the fine for allowing an “unauthorised person” (the provision does not mention a minor) to drive a vehicle is Rs 1,000 or three months of imprisonment or both. However, the draft bill enhances the fine to Rs 10,000, mentions a “minor” is an unauthorised person, and also provides for impounding the vehicle for two months along with a system of penalty points, which ensures that repeat offenders could lose their licences. The fact that in Sharma’s case, the alleged juvenile driver was reportedly a repeat offender highlights the significance of the provisions of the draft bill.
At first glance, Paliwal’s case seems straightforward — she lost control of her bike at 110 kmph. Since there was no other vehicle involved, it is natural to assume she was at fault. But that’s a fallacy. In India, infrastructure and vehicular factors are not taken into account while determining the reasons for a crash. We are, therefore, left with erroneous government data that proclaims 70 per cent of road crashes are caused by “driver error”.
Realising that poor infrastructure is a major cause of road crashes, other countries have adopted the concept of “forgiving roads” and a “safe system approach” to cushion the effect of human error. For instance, on high-speed roads, speed-calming measures could mandatorily be incorporated at vulnerable spots. In India, roads are constructed as per the guidelines of the Indian Roads Congress, which are not mandatory. The lack of accountability of road contractors results in frequent crashes at the same spot.
A statement by a local police official shed light on the reason behind the crash that killed Paliwal: “There should be marking at the turn. We’ve recorded four or five accidents at the spot”, as on February 7, when one person was killed and 40 injured when a bus overturned. Such infrastructure factors should have been taken into account at the design stage itself. But under the existing law, accountability will rest on Paliwal, not on those who failed to rectify the badly designed road. Under the proposed bill, there are penalties for failing to comply with standards for road design, construction and maintenance.
Countries that have had the most success in reducing the number of road crash deaths have achieved this by improving legislation, enforcement, and making roads and vehicles safer. India is not on the list of improving countries. Instead, 10 per cent of the global deaths in road crashes happen here. This is a result of the obsolete Motor Vehicles Act, which fails to protect the most vulnerable users of the road, determine who is allowed to drive, or assign accountability for faulty road design and engineering. The road safety bill remains in cold storage. A number of states have protested against the provisions of the bill to reform state transport undertakings but have supported the road safety provisions of the bill. The government must take the bold step of removing these contentious clauses and focusing on road safety alone.