In April, a young model, Sonika Chauhan, died in an accident in Kolkata. A prominent film actor has been charged with culpable homicide in the case. This tragedy bought us a few days of attention to the murderous mess that our roads have become. The attention did not last. Yet, in 2015, nearly 1.5 lakh people died in traffic accidents in India. And a lot of that was a result of reckless driving. Motorcyclists, and especially pillion riders, drive quite casually without helmets in most of the country. Driving in one’s lane and signalling before one turns is at best optional, and in all likelihood, an admission that the driver is a sissy. And there is the menace of drunk driving — often invisible until the accident has occurred and the driver or passengers are dead.
Sobriety checks on strategic locations by the police is not enough to control drunk driving. Rather, the police need three things: Laws, tools, and the right strategy. The good news is that the police are finally getting the laws and the tools they need. The Lok Sabha passed the Indian Motor Vehicles Amendment Act in April. This piece of legislation, which will be brought to the upper house in July, raises the penalty for drunken driving from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000. Vehicles of drunken drivers are confiscated by the police, and the driver must appear in court to pay a fine or potentially face jail time. There is also a switch from multiple state-run registries of motor vehicles to a central registry which will expedite the tracking down of repeat offenders
The results of action research in Rajasthan in 2010 have revealed that the most effective tool in catching drunken drivers is the portable breathalyser that instantly helps police to detect the incident of drunkenness instead of taking a drunk driver to hospital to ascertain his drunkenness — also a cumbersome exercise for police stations with limited resources, especially vehicles, and a paucity of testing clinics/facilities nearby. Thankfully, the situation is improving in Rajasthan, and around the country, as more and more police stations have been provided with breathalysers.
High fines and breathalysers themselves are, however, not enough until these are implemented with right strategies to control drunken driving. In 2010-2011, the Rajasthan Police, working with an international team of researchers, carried out a study to determine how best to combat drunken driving. As part of the pilot project launched in 183 police stations randomly selected across 10 districts of the state, two-thirds of the police stations used breathalysers on pre-determined points/surprise points to check drunk drivers. The remaining one-third of the police stations were left to use their traditional methods to provide a control group for the experiment.
We learnt many things from the study. There is a fair amount of drunk driving. In the status quo, between 7pm and 10pm (when all the checks happened), more than one out of every 50 drivers was found drunk. Such drivers also had their strategies. When the checks with breathalyser were conducted on fixed points, within a couple of days most of the drunk drivers/would-be drinkers switched to alternative routes with no effect on road accidents or deaths.
Information goes out fast. It is, therefore, much more effective to spread the checkpoints randomly around all the possible main routes (we worked with three). Potential drunk drivers also find out when the checking stops, though they do so relatively slowly when the checking is random and they don’t know when to expect it. Therefore, it is not enough to do a show of checking for some time and then stop. A long-term problem requires a long-term solution.
The right checkpoint strategy turned out to be only part of the answer. We discovered that many police stations were so occupied with other responsibilities that they barely had time to carry out the checks they were assigned. To counter this, half of the crackdown force were taken as special squads from the district police lines.
The special traffic enforcement squads performed better on every outcome compared to the teams from the local police station. Overall, they were 28.4 per cent more likely to show up at the checkpoints to perform sobriety checks. Once they reached the checkpoint, the special teams still performed better: They stopped an average of 50 per cent more vehicles per checkpoint than staff from the local police stations. Given that the dedicated teams both stayed longer and stopped more vehicles, it is not surprising that they caught roughly twice as many drunken drivers.
Perhaps, most importantly, the experiment revealed that checking for drunken driving, when done right, prevents accidents and saves lives. In 2010, each police station had 3.5 accidents and 1.5 traffic deaths per month. The intervention reduced the number of accidents and deaths during the checkpoint hours by 25 per cent each and a substantial part of this effect persisted up to three months after it was stopped. Not surprisingly, most of this gain came from the police stations where the checkpoints were rotated across several locations and where the checks were carried out by the special dedicated teams.
Ultimately, the right law and the right equipment have to be complemented by the right strategy. Such encouraging evidence, a dedicated force to implement traffic laws — including sobriety checks and implementation of randomised checkpoints — does not seem to be on the agenda right now. We wring our hands every time a young and visible person gets hurt or killed, but it is surely time to start treating road accidents not as isolated incidents but as an urgent public health issue.