In July, 2014, when Malaysian airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine killing all 297 people on board, the world was rightly shocked. Now imagine, if two such jets were to crash in India every day! Obviously, the government would be jerked into taking drastic remedial action. That is the amount of deaths that take place on Indian roads every day. According to a WHO report of 2013, 2,43,000 people lost their lives in road accidents in India in 2010! The highest in the world! It’s magnitude is like a Hiroshima bomb being exploded on Indian roads every year. Also, for every death on Indian roads, about two others are seriously injured. On a rough average every death or serious injury costs about Rs. 500,000 in vehicular damage, medical costs, collateral damage, loss of livelihood, etc. Thus 750,000 casualtiescost the nation roughly Rs. 35,500 crore each year. A staggering loss indeed!
The rapid growth of motorised vehicles is commonly blamed for the crashes. But according to this WHO report India only has 41 cars per lakh of population as compared to 183 in China, 249 in Brazil, 519 in UK and 797 in USA. The problem is not therefore with the number of vehicles but the shortage of space on roads and highways and bad traffic management. The same WHO report goes on to state that India has 212 deaths per 100,000 vehicles in contrast to Germany with 6.9 or UK with 6.3. Obviously, better traffic management is required.
Several international studies have shown that the chief cause of crashes is by driver distraction from eating, looking for fallen objects, doing make up, using mobile phones, etc. Speeding is the second most important cause of crashes. Few people know that even at 50 kph, a driver normally needs 20 meters before he can react and press the brakes and that at 80 kph he needs 35 meters. So even with good ABS brakes, speed seriously impacts on safety.
Drunk driving is the third greatest driving hazard. Alcohol not only induces recklessness, but reduces driver reaction time. Strict breathalyser tests in Europe, America and other developed countries have greatly reduced this hazard. Driver fatigue is another big killer and truck and bus drivers abroad are not allowed to drive more than eight hours at a time. Many vehicles have two drivers to drive turn by turn. Vehicle fitness concerning tyres, brakes, steering and suspensions are important to check as also the condition of the roads. Bad weather, snow, ice or heavy rain also contribute to crashes.
Legislation has made crash tests, seat belts and safer vehicles mandatory but 2- wheeler users are still casual with crash helmets in most parts of India. Head injuries account for most 2-wheeler fatalities.
Irresponsible driving by young kids or aggressive adults also needs to be curbed. The prescribed fine under the obsolete Motor Vehicles Act is a nominal Rs. 1000 for driving without a car license. This is a very serious offence in most countries and should attract very heavy fines and jail in India as well. The parents of delinquent children should also be heavily fined. The vehicle licensing by the state Road Transport Authorities (RTO) is also a joke. Despite computerisation and finger print recording, anyone can quickly get driving licenses through obliging touts for a small fee. Having a license confiscated is thus no hardship. As with the banks, the computers at all RTO’s should be linked so that no applicant can get a replacement license from some other RTO.
Upgrading obsolete traffic laws is important but even more vital is the urgent need to have a system to implement them. The traffic police are too few and too often diverted to VIP or other duties. If road safety is to be taken seriously, India will need ten times the number of traffic police, empowered with radar guns, CCTV cameras and powers to fine errant drivers on the spot. The highways should also have dedicated highway patrols like the Motorway Police in Pakistan who recognise no VIP’s. Army officers, Judges or other VIP’s are immediately booked for traffic offences even if they have the power to influence the traffic courts later. Paucity of budget allocations is no excuse when the nation pays such a high price for flouting road rules.
—Mr Murad Ali Baig is an internationally renowned automobile journalist who is also the former editor of The Auto Magazine. Besides automobiles, he writes regular columns on various issues to a host of newspapers and magazines.