How safe are our roads?

S.Madhusudhana Rao

Saturday, the 13th of June, was one of the deadliest days in India’s road transport history. For, a total of 43 passengers were killed across the country on roads while travelling in bus, car and other kinds of vehicles. The number was officially confirmed deaths from states like Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The fatal accidents were extensively reported in the media and the reasons for the crashes were explained and debated. It’s possible that the actual road deaths toll on that day could be higher since many accidents might have gone unreported or they were not brought to police notice, a common phenomenon in rural areas.

S.Madhusudhana Rao

S. Madhusudhana Rao

According to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, one serious accident takes place every minute and one person dies every four minutes on the road. Thus we have the dubious distinction of recording the highest number of fatal accidents in the world year after year. Still, very little has been done to arrest the trend and whatever initiatives have been taken at the central and states’ level to minimize the number of avoidable road accidents have been doomed, thanks to vested interests.

Among the initiatives to make roads safer to travel is the Modi government’s Road Safety Bill proposed last year. But it is yet to be passed by parliament because trade unions and opposition parties have dubbed it ‘draconian.’ Even protests were held in many states on April 30 this year to denounce some of the provisions in the bill which prescribe stringent punishments, including jail terms and heavy penalties, for offenders.

One of the strong opponents of the bill is DMK supremo M Karunanidhi.  He insists the bill violates the federal spirit by taking away the rights of states. In what way a bill that is intended to ensure better road safety erodes the rights of states MK has not explained.

However, the original version of the Road Safety Bill that was drafted to replace the 1988 Motor Vehicles Act had some tough provisions. They were intentionally introduced by the Modi government after the Supreme Court strictures and complaints from a number of citizens and NGOs that the existing laws were inadequate to deal with an ever increasing number of road deaths in the country.

For example, the original bill had proposed removal of liquor shops on highways, five to ten-fold hike in fines even for minor offences and holding government officials and contractors responsible for faulty and sub-standard roads. The first draft of the bill had faced stiff opposition from all quarters except some activists who wanted the central government and the Supreme Court to crack down on speed maniacs and irresponsible drivers. However, the first draft had not cut much ice with the opponents of the bill.

It had been redrafted five times and is expected to be introduced in the monsoon session of parliament now. It is anybody’s guess whether the watered-down bill will get the parliamentarians’ nod. If it goes through, it will be a defanged version of an otherwise potent Act to effectively deal with the rising number of road deaths in India. Then the logical question is does the new law in a new avatar –old wine in new bottle – serve the intended purpose?

It is an acknowledged fact that the outdated Motor Vehicles Rules and paltry fines for traffic offenders are major contributory factors to the mounting road death toll. What is shocking is no worthwhile effort has been made in the last few years to strengthen road safety laws in relation to the growing volume of vehicles.

It’s worth mentioning here what Justice Ranjan Gogoi of Supreme Court said in dealing with a PIL on road safety. His observation should also be a reminder to authorities of their responsibility to public safety on roads. “Regular maintenance of all highways and roads both by the Central and the State governments, in order to make the same traffic worthy, is the minimum that the citizens of this country can expect and are entitled to.”

Sadly, on both counts of road maintenance and law enforcement, authorities have failed. In contrast, another developing country and our neighbor China has succeeded in reversing the deadly trend.

Obviously, government efforts to gradually decrease the number of road traffic accidents by setting up four working groups have not had any effect. The areas they were supposed to cover included enforcement of laws; accident-free engineering of roads; educating road users; and care of accident victims. While the four-pronged approach is tailor-made to tackle the issue, the problem arises with its implementation in letter and spirit.

For example, punishments given to those who have caused fatal road crashes show very few drivers have been given exemplary or deterrent punishments. In several cases, vehicle drivers have got away with what the public believes murder of innocent people. Drunk and irresponsible driving and speeding resulting in loss of life and limb are causes for concern in a country that has been adding hundreds of vehicles every day.

Given the condition of roads in urban areas and their poor maintenance by civic bodies, fatal accidents are waiting to happen. While traffic management is a challenge to the law enforcing authorities, punishing the offenders to deter them and others from repeating the violations is in the realm of law. In other words, concerted efforts should be made by all – government, public, judiciary and traffic police –to curb the alarming incidence of road deaths.

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