Our normally intrepid Labrador, Inji, is petrified of traffic. Confronted by the screeching, screaming traffic outside our building gates, she refuses to budge preferring survival to alimentary relief. Turns out she is on to something.
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Modern India’s traffic is not only chaotic and noisy, but is also dangerous. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s latest statistics, more than 126,000 people died due to road traffic accidents in 2009. Road accidents are the single biggest cause of “unnatural deaths” in India. It is one area where we have handsomely overtaken China. As the population and number of vehicles have risen over the years, so too has the number of “deaths due to road accidents”. While the number of deaths per vehicle has fallen, it is still a shameful 12 fatalities per 10,000 vehicles. Compared with two in the US, one in Britain and less than five in China this is dismal.
The rest of the world woke up to this issue several decades ago. The US set up the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1966 with a crystal clear mission, “save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes”. The Australian government has both federal and provincial offices of road safety, many of whom have endorsed the “towards zero” initiative which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2020. China has now taken several steps to improve road safety and crash response.
In India, road safety seems to be at once everybody’s and nobody’s job. Road safety rules are made by multiple agencies of government at the Centre and the states. Traffic police inconsistently enforce these rules. The motor vehicles department issues licences and vehicle registrations, but does little else for follow-up and safety. Data is sketchy, probably under-reported and the impact ill-studied.
There is no commonly accepted method of calculating the economic impact of road accidents. Different approaches suggest that traffic deaths and injuries have significant economic costs. Property and vehicle damage, cost of long-term healthcare, legal and funeral costs are direct costs. Indirect costs come from costs of work/school forgone, extra loans taken, cost to employer and lost productivity. Various studies put the impact at 1-2% of GDP per year.
So what can be done?
Road crash injury is largely preventable. It is a man-made problem amenable to analysis and countermeasure. The first thing is to make road safety someone’s job. Since about 2003 India has been toying with drafting regulation to bring coordinating jurisdiction to a single Union government authority. Several committees, including the Sanjivi Sundar committee in 2007, have detailed reports on road safety including fully scripted drafts of enabling legislation. A draft Bill called the National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill was tabled in Parliament and referred to the standing committee on transport in 2010. The standing committee rejected it asking for its scope to include all traffic safety matters not only those related to highway safety. It also opined in a convoluted way that enough “rationalization” of the existing fragmented state of entities engaged in road safety was not being done. The Bill has been in a traffic jam since then. A cleaned-up version of the Bill must be passed as soon as possible. Its primary mission must be to cut traffic-related deaths and injuries in half every five years. All other objectives must be secondary or derived priorities to this one.
The second is to enforce time-tested methods such as wearing helmets and fastening seat belts. Over the last five years, Bangalore has successfully insisted on helmets for drivers of two-wheelers (though not for pillion riders). This has had a marked effect in slowing the growth of fatalities and injuries in the city. Chennai is in the early stages of enforcing helmet usage. A representative from ACP, traffic, Chennai, Sanjay Arora’s office confirmed that in 246 out of 255 two-wheeler deaths in Chennai in 2010 no helmets were worn by the victims. Rules relating to helmets exist in almost every state, but are seldom enforced consistently. Evidence from many countries suggests that seat-belt usage can materially reduce severity of injury and bring down fatalities by an impressive 30-40%. Vehicles older than 15 years not fitted with seat belts should be phased out.
The common argument is that nothing much can be done since this requires a full ecosystem change—new regulation, better enforcement, safer vehicles, more sensible roads, elimination of drunk driving, smarter traffic and road management, elimination of traffic police corruption and providing mass transit alternatives... While there is some truth in the argument, this is one problem where we can indeed make a dent by taking one step at a time. Consistent steps in the right direction can, over time, make a material impact on road accident injuries.
Let us begin by bringing to the floor and passing the pending Bill. Delay, in the name of perfection, is causing death and injury. In parallel, ensure that usage of helmets and seat belts is mandatory.
If nothing else, our dog, Inji, will be relieved.
PS: Hug your kids at home, but belt them in the car.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets.
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