Making our roads safe

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SAJI CHERIAN
Last month, yet another pothole claimed yet another man. Praveen, 45, was crushed to death by a tanker when his motorcycle fell into a rainwater-filled pothole in New Delhi. In more alarming news, official figures show that in 2015 alone, over 10,800 accidents in India were caused by potholes, leading to the deaths of more than 3,400 people. Road accidents caused by other factors kill another 1,43,000 people and seriously injure over 5,00,000 people every year in the country. Sadly, these figures might not even paint the true picture: a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests that the numbers could be much higher. In their study, the researchers analysed figures from Belgaum, Karnataka, and found that there is considerable underreporting of deaths caused by road accidents in India. That a country which claims to be the fastest growing economy in the world does not even have a scientific method of data collection in this regard is simply appalling.
Who is to blame?
In a majority of road accident cases (more than 75 per cent in 2015), the blame is primarily placed on the driver – or what is referred to as “driver’s fault” – according to government analysis. No wonder the truck driver in Praveen’s case abandoned his vehicle and scampered off, well aware of the fact that the blame would be pinned on him due to the lack of a proper investigation mechanism to ascertain the actual cause of Praveen’s death.
Bizarrely, not only are the drivers of vehicles involved in crashes apprehended, even victims are often booked for “negligence” in many cases involving poorly designed and maintained roads. Take, for instance, the case of the husband of 25-year-old techie, Stuti Pandey, who was held responsible for her death after she fell off their bike when he tried to avoid a pothole in Bengaluru in September 2015. It was only after a public uproar that the police booked the engineers and contractors who were responsible for the maintenance of that road. A few weeks before Stuti’s death, nine-year-old Likith was killed in a similar manner, also in Bengaluru. This time, engineers of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), who were initially booked, after protests by citizens, cited Section 28 of the NHAI Act in their defence, which states that no action can be taken against its officials for work carried out in “good faith”. The case was eventually dropped against the engineers.
As a nation, we are slowly waking up to the fact that we lead the world in road crash deaths and injuries. Unfortunately, we are at a primitive stage of resolving this issue. We are still trying to understand that every road death is preventable, and that there are solutions which have been tried, tested and found to be successful in other countries. Our slow pace is best exemplified by the fact that it was only in 2014 that ‘potholes’, among other causes, found a mention in the official figures as factors causing accidents.
Lack of data
Many decades ago, developed countries such as the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Singapore and Japan realised that comprehensive road safety data is required for effective road safety management and to develop an evidence-based strategic approach after diagnosing the causes of serious and fatal injuries in road accidents. These countries established robust data collection systems not just to ascertain the causes of crashes, but also to track their effects on the victims through a national trauma registry. In Cambodia, the Road Crash and Victim Information System combines data collected from both the police as well as the hospitals.
Sadly, India, which positions itself as a technological giant, lacks both a crash investigation system as well as a trauma registry, and has a primeval method of ascertaining the causes of road deaths. When an accident occurs, the document which is relied upon to ascertain the cause is the FIR, which is prepared by the police. Due to lack of proper training, the police are unable to capture the various human, infrastructural, and vehicular factors that play a vital role in each accident.
The primary gap lies in the current legislative framework that governs road safety in India.
The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, is silent on fixing accountability for road accidents that are caused due to poorly designed and maintained roads. So it is left to the police to use their discretion, which in the present scenario always results in all the blame being heaped on the driver.
This is the easiest route available to them, as proving wilful culpability of a road contractor or an engineer under the existing law is very difficult.
A nation that witnesses deaths daily due to holes on its roads needs to take some hard and urgent decisions. Last week, the Union Cabinet approved the Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Bill, 2016, but this should be introduced in the ongoing Monsoon session of Parliament.
The amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act must also ensure a system for robust crash investigation and stringent punishment for contractors and agencies that fail to provide safe roads.
Saji Cherian is Director-Operations, SaveLife Foundation.

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