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A Million Deaths Later, Road Safety Issues Stay Parked In India

03/06/2015 8:34 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A schoolgirl crosses a road shrouded in haze in New Delhi, India, on Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. India, China and Brazil, three of the largest developing nations, joined the U.S. in a list of the biggest historical contributors to global warming, according to a study by researchers in Canada. Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The road accident death of Union Minister Gopinath Munde exactly a year ago had brought the issue of road safety (or the lack of it) in India to the forefront for the first time. There was unprecedented public outcry at the frequent deaths on our roads - more than a million Indians have lost their lives in the past decade alone -- and the inability of the Government to adequately address the problem. The increasing media glare on the issue led to Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari acknowledging the need for a comprehensive road safety laws for India.

This acknowledgement, though late, was a welcome step. Road safety requires a multi-pronged, multi-sectoral approach to be effective. This approach must take into account the multiple stakeholders that influence various areas of road safety and strive to make them work together. For instance, the reason why the Indian style of driving is infamous globally is because the two things that control the quality of drivers on our roads -- the driver's training system and the licensing system -- are completely compromised.

Enforcement, on the other hand, is entirely human dependent, and therefore marred by corruption and capacity constraints. Road design and engineering, another major cause of accidents in India, does not follow the globally accepted "Safe System Approach" where the possibility of human-error is already accounted for and interventions are designed accordingly. For instance, in India the cyclist and the truck fight for the same leftmost lane on our roads. The "Safe System Approach" looks at segregating vulnerable road-users from motorised traffic, especially the heavy vehicles, minimising the chances of them crashing with each other.

"Road safety activists are not ready to give up though, and they shouldn't. Political will can be strengthened if the public comes together to get its voice heard."

Most crucially, each of these areas -- from driver licensing to road engineering -- fall under different departments and ministries, and unless there is a legislatively backed system that can make them work together, and monitor them, interventions, if any, will remain in silos with minimal impact on the ground.

A good road safety law would seek to address these issues, and that is what Nitin Gadkari promised us last June. A year from Mr Munde's demise, Mr Gadkari's conviction to ensure safer roads seems to be on shaky ground. He did release a fairly comprehensive Bill in September last year, but over the course of the past several months and many protests by vested interests and lobbies later, this Bill is in shambles. It almost entirely ignores vulnerable road users (including children) and fails to hold rash drivers, vehicle manufacturers and road contractors accountable for criminal negligence. Most importantly, the latest version of the Bill takes away almost all independence from the proposed road safety regulator and sets a cap on the amount of compensation a road accident victim's family can receive. An exercise that started with none other than a Union Cabinet Minister's road accident death has become the subject of official apathy and an example of extremely weak political will.

Road safety activists are not ready to give up though, and they shouldn't. Political will can be strengthened if the public comes together to get its voice heard. It is impossible for any politician to ignore sustained demands from their voter base. And to drive this demand, road safety NGOs from across India have launched the "Road Safety At Risk" campaign, an attempt to get the common person to get his or her voice heard by none other than the Prime Minister of India. The campaign website has already enabled hundreds of people to send a letter to the PM and his key aides demanding their intervention to ensure a strong road safety law. Hopefully these letters will not go unnoticed and the PM will take action. It'll be a befitting tribute to Shri Gopinath Munde and lakhs of common Indians who have been snatched away by the epidemic of road accidents.

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