Published: The Hindu Business Line, April 07, 2004,

By Pradeep S Mehta

TODAY, the World Health Day is being observed it with an extremely relevant theme: “Road Safety is No Accident”. In India, it is a continuing series of accidents.

First, the National Road Safety Policy adopted in 1992 cannot even be found in the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways or its Web site. One understands that a new one is being drafted. Second, the 1992 policy had a clear goal to reduce the number of accidents, but they have been going up exponentially. A Planning Commission study estimates the economic cost of accidents to be in the region of 3 per cent of GDP. While the Government is engaged in a worthwhile project of building roads, what of the lives lost on roads? Now consider this:

India has one of the highest per capita accidents in the world — roughly 86,000 people get killed and more than four lakh get injured or crippled every year.

According to the International Road Traffic Federation, India stands fourth in the number of accidents after the US, Japan and Germany.

But it tops the world in road fatalities — its fatality rate is 1.97 per 1,000 vehicles compared to Germany’s 0.20.

With just 1 per cent of the global vehicle population (and a road network of just 3.3 million km), India has 6 per cent of the total accidents of the world.

There is an accident every 90 seconds and every seven minutes a fatality.

Now multiply this with all the thousands of km of new roads and highways. Forget the environmental costs, road accidents account for a loss of Rs 6.95 crore to the national exchequer. And that is discounting the social costs — the loss of the breadwinner and long-term injuries or trauma for the victims and their family. Experts estimate road accidents account for an annual social loss of Rs 55,000 crore.

Unless road safety is given the high priority it deserves in the development of the current infrastructure, the statistics will continue to rise. Unless the policy-makers create room for greater investment in more rigorous training of road users and drivers, the death toll will continue to mount. Besides maintenance of roads and enforcement of the law, it is education and training alone that will change the situation. It is well established that the vehicle driver is a very significant factor in a road accident — about 50 per cent of accidents are caused due to the driver’s fault. Thus, the quality of drivers has special significance, and correct training and effective licensing are the two vital fundamentals of a quality driver.

It is a fact that the majority of drivers in India have hardly any formal training. In 1992, when the National Road Safety Policy was being drafted, it was found that out of about 350 lakh people engaged in driving different kinds of motorised vehicles, about 20 lakh were deployed on heavy transport vehicles.

That figure has gone up significantly in the past decade. More highways mean more heavy vehicles, which means more ill-trained drivers on the road. And the connection to greater number of accidents is established. Training and regulation of such drivers, therefore, needs special attention. So, though the Government has directed attention on awareness programmes, it needs to pull up state transport departments and traffic police, which are the local licensing and enforcement authorities, into conducting training programmes if some measure of success is to be found in reducing the number of road casualties.

Important aspects of road safety need to be built into the programme. These include: Knowledge of traffic rules, regulations and road signs, punishment to drivers violating traffic rules and speed limits, driving under the influence of liquor or drugs (or while using mobile phones) and the elementary mechanism of vehicle and driver fitness and upgrading the quality and instructions imparted by motor driving schools also. Incidentally, the training should be equally mandatory for the regulators, that is the traffic personnel.

And it is not enough to train drivers technically alone. Social and psychological training also needs to be factored into any module that is designed. It is a known fact that aggressiveness and loss of patience are increasingly leading to a worsening road situation in India. There are too many high-profile cases of road rage reported in the media to dispute the fact.

Licensing also needs to be made more stringent. The licensing process in most cities and towns, particularly the manner of testing driving skill and knowledge of traffic regulation, is a joke. What is more, the control should not end at the issuing of a licence; refresher courses and further tests should be made mandatory at the time of renewal or periodically.

Policy-makers need to take a structured approach to building this component into road safety policies, and fast. Or else, all awareness programmes, such as the ones the Government is currently running, will be consigned to the dust as that grand document, the National Road Safety Policy. In this, the civil society movement also needs to be a more active player than it is.

Until this happens, we will continue to see scooterists overtake other vehicles from the left and swerve into the right lane barely missing another vehicle, or drivers swinging out nonchalantly from by-lanes straight into a collision. Or more tragedies on the road.