A spectre has been haunting India—a spectre of an insane cellphone ban that forbids motorists or two-wheeler riders from using a mobile.
Contrast this with Britain, the US and all of Europe, which only ban the use of hand-held mobiles. Not a mobile that’s mounted on a car dashboard or on a motorbike handle. These societies have concluded after research that the use of hands-free mobiles doesn’t contribute to road accidents. The Indian state believes otherwise. If the Indian state was right, road accidents would fall in India and rise in, say, Britain.
The truth is exactly the opposite. Britain has more mobiles (61 million) than people (60 million) and millions of motorists in the country routinely use a hands-free mobile while driving. Yet, deaths and injuries on Britain’s roads dropped between 2004 and 2005.
But India, which forbids motorists from using any kind of mobile, saw 1,324 more road deaths and 29,000 more injuries between 2002 and 2003.
This is because India’s cellphone ban ends up promoting what it seeks to curb: dangerous driving. The ban is routinely flouted because a mobile is such a crucial productivity tool that the 100 million Indians who own one cannot afford to switch it off for the two-three hours they spend commuting and travelling around on work. Which is why, with two lakh new mobile owners added every day, there’s no sight more common in India than a motorist talking furtively into a hand-held mobile as his eyes dart around to spot a lurking policeman. The same motorists would be safer drivers if they could use a hands-free mobile. But they don’t bother to fix one on their dashboards because their use is also outlawed.
India’s cellphone ban should be reviewed for two reasons. One, it’s unenforceable. But the second reason is more compelling. The world’s most advanced nations allow motorists to use hands-free mobiles, and so should we, because true globalization means a globalization of ideas. We should learn from advanced nations.
Their record of road safety is incomparably better than ours. The US, for instance, has twice as many motor vehicles as India, but half of India’s road accident deaths. Fatalities on US roads have dropped from 54,633 in 1970 to 46,200 in 2004. In India, they rose five-fold in the same period —from 14,500 in 1970 to 86,000 in 2004. Looking at this, India should ask one question. Why re-invent the wheel? If western nations see a drop in road accidents while their motorists lawfully talk on mobiles while driving, there’s a lesson there. Do what they do. What we do gets us nowhere.
India’s cellphone ban for motorists was imposed without the state asking how it could deprive millions of motorists of an indispensable productivity tool. Contrast this casualness in law-making with the West, where the use of hands-free mobiles by motorists was allowed only after studies examined one question. If a motorist can lawfully listen to music, eat, drink, or talk to passengers in a moving car, does he become a traffic hazard just because he takes a call on a hands-free mobile? The answer was a resounding no. Regulation overseas is well thought out and strict.
There’s no compromise with public safety. In Britain, a motorist caught using a hand-held mobile is sledge-hammered. Apart from a £60 fine, he earns three penalty points on his driving licence. If he gets another three within two years of passing his test, his licence is revoked and he has to re-sit the test. In 2004, nearly 74,000 fixed-penalty notices were issued in England and Wales for illegal use of mobiles while driving. Violators also take a financial hit. Their premiums are raised by insurance companies.
Enforcement is relentless. In Britain, a motorist cannot hold a mobile even if he’s parked on the side of the road with his car engine running. He must switch off the engine. (Only cyclists in Britain are allowed to use hand-held phones.)
Contrast this with India where tens of thousands of motorists endanger their own and other lives by speaking into a mobile in one hand, while the other hand copes with changing gears and steering the vehicle. We have no data on the mayhem caused by this road behaviour. The mayhem must be immense. Cars and buses account for around 14% of Delhi’s motor vehicles. But they account for nearly one-third of Delhi’s road accident deaths. Not surprising.
Delhi may be just a city, but last year, it had more than twice as many cellphones (80 lakh) as Bihar (36 lakh). Obviously, the spreading use of hand-held mobiles will increase India’s road accidents. In their down-and-out days, Japan, Singapore, South Korea or Taiwan progressed by copying wholesale from the West.
We should do the same on cell-phones and driving. The current cellphone ban on motorists is impossible to enforce. Mounting a hands-free mobile kit with a speaker on a car dashboard costs nothing. If a person is driving his car with a friend beside him and talking, it’s nearly impossible for a watching policeman to judge whether he’s talking to the friend or to a caller.
Arvind Kala is a freelance journalist, which he says is a euphemism for being unemployed. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org