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Need For Speed: Road Safety Reforms Could Save Lakhs Of Lives In India

16/11/2015 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Traffic Jam at Hyderabad

There's no death of frightening reports on India's abysmal road safety record. The most recent is the "Global Road Safety Report 2015" published by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Due in large part to lax or negligible enforcement of road safety laws, an estimated 207,551 people died in road accidents during 2014. Interestingly, the estimate provided by India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) was 141,526 during the same period. The trend is sobering: with the exception of a short downward blip in 2012, traffic fatalities in India have been rising consistently since 2007.

According to the WHO, traffic accidents claim over 1.2 million lives globally each year. This burden is borne disproportionately by low- and middle-income countries and leads to a loss of approximately 3% of their economies' Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

"The government hopes to pass a comprehensive National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill as well as an update to the Motor Vehicles Act."

A mere 17 countries (i.e. 5.7% of the world's population) enforce road safety legislation to ensure that road users do not drink and drive, adhere to speed limits, use seat belts and child restraints, and that motorcyclists wear helmets. India meets WHO's safety criteria for seat belt usage only and even that is poorly enforced.

India enacted the Motor Vehicles Act in 1988. Most Indian states have a Road Safety Policy. However, these are irrelevant in the absence of a cohesive and coordinated enforcing body.

According to Sanjay Bandopadhyaya of the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, part of the problem is that too many authorities -- national, state and local -- are responsible for establishing and enforcing road safety standards. The government hopes to pass a comprehensive National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill as well as an update to the Motor Vehicles Act. However, as these emphasise efficiency and transparency by streamlining licensing processes and having official records digitalised, there is a lot of resistance to their approval by Parliament.

road safety india

Industry experts are concerned India will not be able to meet the UN's goal of halving traffic accident fatalities by 2020. They fear the political will that's required to develop a vision for improving road safety based on clear goals and a strategy for enforcing regulation is lacking. A transport policy that makes road safety a national priority is urgently needed, argues Rohit Baluja, the Director of the Institute of Road Traffic Education, who adds that "a lot needs to be done to change the deep-rooted behaviour of drivers and pedestrians." In the meantime, road safety engineering could be improved by paying attention to basic necessities such as road signs, markings and crash barriers. Similarly, providing and maintaining hard shoulders and sidewalks to help ensure that pedestrians and non-motorised traffic do not interfere with fast moving vehicular traffic could significantly improve road safety. A mobile app for registering complaints against rash driving, integrated with the national transport registration system, is also anticipated to help curb reckless driving.

Following the WHO's report, India's Road Transport Ministry issued a directive requiring national highways agencies to comply with design, construction and operational road safety regulations. A traffic management system based on improving engineering, enforcement, education and management of emergencies is urgently needed to "bring about a reduction in mortality and morbidity." Since 63% of traffic related fatalities occur on national and state highways the focus on highways is unsurprising.

"Industry experts are concerned India will not be able to meet the UN's goal of halving traffic accident fatalities by 2020... A transport policy that makes road safety a national priority is urgently needed."

The government also plans to implement basic safety measures to better manage black spots and dangerous junctions, build service roads and crash barriers, provide safety features such as crossings and lights to enable pedestrians to use or cross roads safely, and to carry out safety audits of road networks. These are especially important in heavily congested areas or where highways cut through the urban sprawl.

There are also plans to educate the public and increase awareness of road safety regulations. These include school lessons on traffic and road safety, celebrity appearances and media coverage. Enforcement will include hefty fines for driving violations, as well as imprisonment in case of fatalities.

Finally, the government wants to encourage automobile manufacturers to take responsibility and ensure all vehicles are fitted with basic safety features such as seat belts, air bags and anti-lock braking systems. According to Rajan Katoch, Secretary for Heavy Industries, manufacturers must comply with international safety standards by 2017. Violators will be subject to heavy fines, whilst dangerous vehicles (to passengers or other road users) could be subject to recalls. Therefore, seven Crash Test Centres capable of carrying out a variety of safety and crash tests on motor vehicles are to be set up across India for new car models to undergo mandatory crash testing by October 2017. Existing models will be tested starting October 2019. Adherence to minimum safety standards and tests -- to be set under the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme (BNVSAP) -- will also be mandatory by 2017/2018, with cars subject to a star system of safety ratings.

These reforms and regulations cannot come soon enough. Out of all road traffic deaths, 90% occur in low or middle income regions, accounting for 54% of all vehicles say WHO experts. Of these more than 10% occur in India even though India has less than 3% of the world's vehicles. Actual figures are probably much higher, they argue, since many accidents are undocumented.

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