Intro: Road mishaps in India every year kill more people than all terrorism related deaths put together over past six decades. Despite some shortcomings, the proposed Road Transport and Safety bill offers a new hope towards much safer and efficient roads for Indian citizens.
Official statistics show that about 80,000 civilians, security personnel and members of various terror groups died as a result of terrorism in India during past 30 years. These victims included two Prime Ministers and many VVIPs too. This period witnessed the peak of terrorism in Punjab, Kashmir, a host of North Eastern states and other parts of India. '26/11’, the blackest day of terrorism in India which took a toll of 195 lives within a few hours, too happened during this period. If all such numbers since 1947 are added, the figures might touch the 150,000 mark.
It is not therefore surprising that a substantial section of our police force and government machinery remains exclusively dedicated on 24×7 hour basis to protect citizens. While the cash bill runs into billion of Rupees every year, the nation is still willing to put in further efforts and resources to ensure the safety of common man. Policy makers have also framed many new laws and amended numerous others to achieve this goal.
A Virtual Terrorist
It is ironic that the very nation has remained perpetually aloof and indifferent to another type of ‘terrorism’ which is far more deadly and takes away far more lives every year than all terrorism related deaths put together over past six decades. In 2013 alone, careless drivers, badly designed and shabbily maintained vehicles and roads, and poor practices on the part of every other stake holder plucked away about 166,500 lives. This comes to about 456 road killings per day viz. more than two '26/11' every day, all 365 days. More than half of these victims are in the prime of their age, sole family bread earners and most active contributors to the national economy. In addition, more than four times of this number of persons were either partially immobilised or were left permanently disabled for life in these road accidents. But in sharp contrast to the other type of 'real' terrorism, this virtual terrorism on the road has consistently failed to attract attention of policy makers, road authorities, providers of civil services and even its victim — public at large. Unfortunately, even the motor vehicle industry which happens to be the biggest gainer of road transport and does a roaring business by selling cars, trucks, buses and motor bikes etc., has made near zero contribution towards improving the situation. Rather in their desperation to improve their sales, even best of companies take to aggressive advertising which many times only promotes dangerous and irresponsible driving. This industry has so far sold 40 million vehicles in India. Of this nearly 4 million were sold last year (2013) to mop up around Rs. 2000 Billion.
4,90,383 : No. of Accidents in 2012.
1,38,358 : No. of Deaths in 2012.
BJP’s senior leader Gopinath Munde lost his life in a road accident in New Delhi on June 3, 2014.
The New Draft Bill
However, the draft of the proposed Road Transport and Safety Bill 2014, released this month by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, has come as a great relief. The most welcome point of the new law is a conceptual shift from the old inefficient and incomplete 'Motor Vehicle’ Act to a 'Road Safety' law. Creation and integration of a 'National Authority for Road Safety' and a 'National Transport and Multimodal Coordination Authority' along with the 'State Transport Authorities' at state levels fulfils the most vital void towards an integrated institutional framework that road safety in India has been gasping for since ages. It provides enough space for uniformity of effective road safety laws at national level while simultaneously providing enough autonomy to the states to adopt these laws according to local conditions and needs.
Major features of this bill focus at providing safer and efficient mobility to road users and ensuring some basic standards in keeping vehicles safer and efficient. These sections of the law include policies on providing safe walking and moving space for pedestrians, cyclists, public transport users and ensuring quality of vehicles on the road. What makes the proposed law more inclusive and holistic is the inclusion of transit infrastructure, road infrastructure, logistics of freight network and inter-modal transport facilities and safer moving environment for school children, women and persons with physical disabilities.
A major focus of new law is on adopting more rational approach on some basic safety related issues and inclusion of many new aspects to make the new law more effective and practical. These include a new, dynamic and rational approach towards driver licensing, implementation of rules on speed, drunken driving and use of safety gadgets during travel. The new law also gives an organised and strategic shape to post-crash care and matters related to insurance and investigation as well as analysis of the causes and effects of accidents. For example, implementing a nationwide unique driving licensing system and data base along with monitoring the offence history of each driver will go a big way in bringing erring drivers under control and will end confusion caused by multiple and duplicate licenses.
Some missing Issues
However, despite all these positive points in the proposed law there are quite a few vital aspects which deserve serious attention. For example, a stringent law against driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol is welcome. But the proposed bill must also ban liquor wending along highways to decrease the risk of drivers getting attracted to alcohol during the journey.
A major flaw of bill is that it is nearly silent on public education on road safety practices. As the Modi government is launching a new approach towards governance, this is high time that an issue like road-safety with such high socio-economic consequences is integrated into the school education system right up to the age when students
are ready for taking to driving. Driving license process must also include a stringent and detailed test on knowledge of various aspects of road safety.
Corporate Social Responsibility
The draft law is almost silent on the Corporate Social Responsibility of the motor vehicle industry towards making a meaningful contribution to the road safety in the country. The law does not make it obligatory for the industry players not to adopt business and promotion practices which add to the indiscipline and dangerous driving practices on the road. For example, a popular motorbike company proudly promotes its bikes with a TV ad film which shows a gang of stunt bikers performing breathtaking stunts which, if copied by an average road user, is bound to lead to mayhem on an ordinary Indian road.
At places, the draft bill reflects typical Indian bureaucratic tendency of leaving large enough loop holes into the laws. For example, the clause dealing with sale of faulty and unsafe protective gear like helmets or visibility gear also allows the mischievous seller to go scot-free if he can prove that he sold it to the buyer for 'export'. The law looks just half heartedly at checking road accidents due to use of beam headlights that has emerged as a major cause of fatal accidents in night. Unhindered use of beam headlights, coupled with near total absence of effective filters like a wall of bush or metal barriers along the road dividers, leads to numerous fatal accidents as the driver cannot spot a person crossing the road or a road block or even a deep pit or an open manhole on the road ahead.
Vijay Kranti (The writer is a senior journalist)