Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Killer tracks: The blood on our roads

The trouble with road safety enforcement in India is that it's a low priority item for policymakers.

Ankush Bansal, a batchmate of mine from IIM-Ahmedabad, had started an educational venture and spoke about it with much excitement at the batch reunion we had on campus in 2010. His wife was there too and he had two kids back home in Delhi. People jibed him about the days when he would sit in the first row of the class and doze off and his long-winded “CP" (class participation).

Last Sunday Bansal died. In a car crash while travelling from Dehradun to Delhi. About 142,485 people died in road accidents in 2011 in India. Every year this number has been increasing. In 2002, it was 84,672. Among those who die are some of the country’s vibrant, young, talented people whose promising lives are reduced to statistics.

The World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Road Safety says that India is the undisputed world leader in road accidents. This is one area where we have successfully beaten our traditional rival, China. Every minute there is a road accident in India and every 3.7 minutes a resulting death. Mumbai leads followed by Delhi, Bangalore, Indore and Bhopal.

What are the causes? According to a National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, 78% of the accidents are because of the driver’s fault. The fault being mostly drunken driving. Almost all the fatalities on the road which occur on highways are due to drunken truck drivers. While cops have started imposing heavy fines on drunk drivers, there is no checking on a tanked up truck driver swaying in the highway especially at nights. That is why trucks cause 40% of all road accidents.

Prince Singhal has been an activist against drunken driving in Delhi since 1992. I ask him if the enforcement against drunk drivers has been stricter because the number of challans issued has gone up from 12,784 in 2009 to about 22,000 this year. But he tells me it is a false comfort. “In a city of about 6.5 million vehicles, the number of challans should be much more. Besides, the scale of drinking is huge in the city and has been increasing. Every locality has a theka or a club, so given the number of drunks on the road, the number of challans issued are nothing," said Singhal.

He points out that there is no patrolling after midnight, the penalty is 2,000, which any rich guy getting out of a pub can pay and more importantly, a challan is not a sufficient deterrent. He advocates that there should be more stringent punishment such as impounding of the vehicle or a jail term.

In Singapore, the punishment for drunken driving on the first offence can be as much as Singapore $5,000 (223,520) and six months of imprisonment. In the UK, it is similar along with a driving ban for 12-36 months. In Canada, it is a criminal offence, not “rash and negligent act" as it is in India. In the US, too licences are revoked and in 30 states, multiple offenders may forfeit vehicles that are driven while impaired by alcohol. In Delhi, the punishment for a second offence is 3,000, the cost of a few cocktails. We are a truly tolerant society.

At least, drunken driving is a recognized offence and the revised Motor Vehicles Act is expected to raise the penalty. But there are various other reasons for motor accidents which are yet to come under any legal net.

Last week, my cousin had come down from Dubai and while we were enroute from the airport we saw a truck before us with those long rusty iron rods that trucks, tempos and handcarts nonchalantly carry in India to construction sites. They jut out of the vehicle, swaying menacingly with their edges ready to pierce through the windshield of the vehicle behind. That’s what happened, to a friend, my cousin said. This bright, beautiful girl took an auto in Chennai, which was following a vehicle transporting such rods. The auto braked suddenly and a rod pierced through her forehead. It was her engagement day. In June 1992, Carnatic music doyen Maharajapuram Santhanam, whose rich, sonorous voice could mesmerize even philistines, was returning from a concert in Kumbakonam when he died similarly in a road accident on the highway.

Who’s going to ban transport of iron rods in open vehicles?

In smaller towns of Goa and Karnataka, iron ore is transported by trucks which deteriorates road condition as there is heavy movement of truck traffic. The bad roads in turn create conditions for accidents. The local folks have called for a ban but the powerful mining lobby ensures it stays temporary.

Accidents also occur because of our appalling inability to follow any rules which is often romanticized as a “we are like this only" characteristic. Novelist Chandrahas Chaudhary makes a pertinent point in an article in Bloomberg about road safety. “The tumult of horns and cursing voices, the speeding and overtaking vehicles, the motorists casually running red lights, the pedestrians jumping into traffic or hopping off moving buses—all this isn’t, unfortunately, an expression of the chaos and bustle of street life celebrated in some accounts of the subcontinent, but rather a sign of a shocking flippancy and pointless bravado."

The trouble with road safety enforcement in India is that it is a low priority item for policymakers. It is buttressed by our huge tolerance of death and injury on our roads. Perhaps that has to do with our outlook of fatalism and detachment. Else there should be rage against those who recklessly mow down people on the road. There should be vociferous demands for better laws and stricter policing. But none of that happens. Because we are a country where an actor who drives over sleeping pavement dwellers thrives on and gets into the 100 crore club of Bollywood.

Vandana Vasudevan is a Delhi-based writer on urban consumer and civic experiences. Your comments are welcome at