Every year nearly 1,50,000 people lose their lives on Indian roads, the highest in the world. Most of the victims are in the age group of 15-44 years — the most productive period of life. Each road crash entails economic cost, not to mention the social cost of pain, grief and suffering of families of the victims, most of whom come from the weaker sections of society. What’s needed is incorporating comprehensive road safety programmes into our national planning to curtail this predictable and preventable loss.
As a result, the MVA (Amendment) 2019 came into force on September 1, sending traffic cops into a frenzy challaning violators. Videos went viral, violators crying while showing challan slips and some leaving their bikes with the cops as the amount exceeded the market value of their vehicle. A tractor driver was fined Rs 59,000, the highest to my knowledge.
Our decision makers probably feel that everyone regularly follows parliamentary proceedings. With most running around the whole day to make both ends meet, that’s not the case. They were caught unawares and are feeling cheated. Honestly, do we know how many bills were passed in the monsoon session and how they would impact us? We do not and we cannot.
There are nearly 70 amendments, only 10-odd regarding increased penalties got implemented the same day. What disappoints the most is there is no mention of plan or timeline for implementing others. Committees are still being formed that would work to make rules.
Just two examples: Amendment to Section 110A states that, “The central government may make rules for regulating the recall of motor vehicles, of a particular type or its variants, for any defect which may cause harm to the environment or to the driver or occupants of such motor vehicle or to other road users.”
Amendment to Section 116 states that, “ the NHAI or other agency may cause or permit traffic signs to be placed or erected or removed on national highways for the purpose of regulating motor vehicle traffic and may order the removal of any sign or advertisement, which in its opinion is so placed as to obscure any traffic sign from view or is so similar in appearance to a traffic sign as to mislead or is likely to distract the attention or concentration of the driver.”
Such important amendments having direct relation with safety of road users through safer roads and safer vehicles start with verb ‘may’, the dictionary meaning ‘ indicate that something will possibly happen or be true in the future, but you cannot be certain.’ Going my experience this might never happen.
The fines for drunken driving have been increased to Rs 10,000 but at the same time liquor vends with luring advertisements dot our highways. Wonder whom these vends cater to if not drivers? They say, prevention is better than cure, but not in this case. A catch-22 situation for a traveller and an indicator of intentions of the welfare state.
A sticker seen on a SUV “Avoiding Potholes, Not Drunk” brings another fact into perspective, As per the amendment in the Act, a road contractor is liable to a fine upto Rs 1 lakh if he fails to comply with standards for road design, construction and maintenance results in death or disability. Every other road has potholes, faulty design or execution, etc. A procedure will be laid out, both parties will sledge it out and if the court finds the contractor guilty then he would be liable to pay a fine which would have little or no impact on company’s profile whereas precious lives might have been lost due it’s negligence. This too, if a victim’s family decides to challenge the powerful contractor.
Three months back my friend, a doctor, got challaned for over-speeding on NH-44 (Delhi-Chd highway) as he was driving at 95 km/hr. An otherwise law abiding citizen he got extra careful. A few days later he was driving on the same highway and on seeing a posted road sign of 50 km/hr, reduced his speed and continued driving; vehicles zoomed past him while he continued for 20 minutes searching for road sign ‘national speed limit applies/90km/hr). Reluctantly, he increased his speed to match others so he doesn’t get hit. His concern was right as he could have got challaned again due to this void.
Having travelled on roads of more than 10 countries, including developing countries like Brazil and Turkey , there is a visible difference in traffic discipline and road user behaviour compared to ours. Is it just because they have higher fines, not so. The road environment guides you and most drivers naturally end up following the rules. On the other hand, our road environment surprises us as anyone can come from anywhere due to rampant violations of National Highway Act 1956 and Control of National Highway (Land & Traffic) Act 2002 to name a few.
Countries like Sweden and Netherlands that have ‘Vision Zero’ to road crashes have graduated to safe system approach, which is based on the principle that our life and health should not be compromised by our need to travel. Responsibility for the system is shared by everyone. Policy makers, planners, engineers, vehicle manufacturers, fleet managers, enforcement officers, road safety educators, health agencies and the media are accountable for the system’s safety; while every road user, whether they drive, cycle or walk, is responsible for complying with the system’s rules.
The World Health Organisation has been studying road safety measures implemented and evaluated in different countries over the years and have created a body of knowledge about evidence-based solutions that could have been adapted as per our conditions.
We should have followed these best practices instead of trying to address the complex problem by pulling one thread i.e. enforcement. Even enforcement might be effective only in some urban pockets like Chandigarh, Delhi, Bangaluru or Hyderabad not on hundreds of thousands of kilometres of national and state highways.
Not doubting the government’s intention, but implementation in a skewed manner, targeting the weakest link immediately and leaving every other aspect open ended might not yield the desired result.
The focus should be on saving lives which is possible only if we have a holistic approach and not just by challaning drivers. Increasing fines was overdue but not to this extent; imposing heavy fines on road users is not the panacea to reduce road crashes and fatalities.
Having said that, our safety is in our own hands, so follow traffic rules irrespective of other aspects. Make a concerted effort; don’t honk, you would realise you are a safer driver. This reminds me of my driver, Meharban Singh, who has not been challaned in 15 years. Let’s take pride in following rules of the road and respecting law of the land.
Date: September 16, 2019