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How to win the war against road accidents

As many as 27 people were killed, and 29 injured, on the notorious Mumbai-Pune Expressway shortly after midnight on May 28 this year. The victims were part of a wedding party returning to Pune from Ghatkopar in Mumbai in two mini-buses. The vehicles were stationary. One of them had a punctured tyre and the other was throwing light on it from its headlamps to enable the driver to change tyres. A speeding truck came from behind and hit it, causing it to dash against the one ahead of it. The victims died as a result of the collisions.

This was reportedly the worst accident on the expressway since it opened in 2000. So many lives snuffed out because the drivers involved were careless. One of them was obviously speeding and the other two had parked their vehicles on the carriageway — not at a safe distance away from the oncoming traffic.

Even so, the accident could have been averted if the bus makers had stuck to the law and followed the simple expedient of using conspicuous retro reflector tapes on all sides, as per the Motor Vehicles Rules.

As per the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, the drivers of heavy motor vehicles are required to be trained in first aid trauma care and the vehicles equipped with first aid boxes. If this rule had been followed in the case of the driver of the killer truck on the expressway, many lives could have been saved.

Another rule that is flouted all too often relates to helping accident victims. It is common for road users in India to hesitate to help accident victims because they fear harassment at the hands of the police. It is equally common to find hospitals refusing to attend to those injured in accidents. But the Supreme Court has clearly held that no one rushing an accident victim to hospital can be harassed by the police. Nor can a hospital refuse to treat such a victim. Unfortunately, this is neither widely known nor publicised. Not surprisingly, road accident victims often do not receive medical attention during the vital ‘golden hour’ when such intervention can save their lives or mitigate their injuries.

Is it any surprise then that India leads the world in the number of road deaths? Around 1.42 lakh persons lost their lives due to road accidents in 2011. These figures are higher than those of any other country in the world, including China. About 389 persons, the equivalent of a full load of a Jumbo jetliner, leave home every day in India and meet with violent deaths in road accidents. The injured, half a million every year and often with permanent disabilities, lead pitiable lives, along with their families.

According to the Planning Commission, the country loses as much as two to three per cent of its GDP every year due to road crashes. This makes road accidents one of India’s biggest public health challenges. But our bureaucracy and our political leadership seem to be showing the same callousness and apathy towards road safety as our ordinary citizens.

Thus a Bill to establish a National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board is languishing on the backburner. Such an authority is necessary to ensure a holistic inter-departmental approach to the adoption and implementation of road safety measures across the nation.

The war against road accidents has to be waged on four fronts — Enforcement, Education, Emergency-Care and Engineering. The last deserves special mention. It is the done thing in our country to blame drivers for mishaps. There is seldom any effort to find out whether there could have been any other reason for the accident. However, the fact is that our roads are not always optimally designed to keep accidents to a minimum. They are neither ‘self-explaining’ nor ‘forgiving’, as they always should be. In fact, often, there are design flaws that could only be described as ‘lethal’.

Yet, those responsible for the design, building and maintenance of roads, as well as for signages, are seldom questioned when accidents occur. Incorporation of safety features in road design and regular safety audits are a must. Systematic identification and treatment of hazardous spots can substantially improve road safety. At this time, even identified black spots are not being addressed on a priority basis.

Making our roads safer is a task that requires the Government to work with private bodies. Significant financial outlays are called for. Since road safety is a mission of national importance, the Government must encourage wider private participation by declaring that expenditure incurred on approved road safety measures would be exempt from income tax. This could be along the lines of the income tax exemption provided in the proposed Direct Tax Code on expenditure incurred on promotion of family planning and prevention of HIV AIDS.

All stake-holders must work together to arrest and reverse the growing trend of road accidents. What is required is strict implementation of existing laws, incorporation of road safety in road design and widespread communication of road safety messages. This is a war that can and must be won.

— The author is Chairman of the Geneva-based International Road Federation¬†

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