Thirty-five years ago a Maruti 800 changed the way we drove. Last week Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for road transport and highways, got the approval of Parliament for a new law, which if implemented in spirit and substance, could give another drastic makeover to the way we behave (if you can call it that) on the road and implicitly another nudge to India’s efforts to imbibe a rules-based regime.

As most would say, this couldn’t have come sooner. Anecdotally, because it is so ubiquitous, we accept wrong side driving as a way of life, jumping lights as a fine art, bullying pedestrians off the zebra crossing as the accepted routine, and of course helmetless driving as the unofficial norm.

A presentation made to the ministry of road transport in the build-up to the new legislation reveals some startling statistics: On an average every minute there is an accident causing one death every four minutes. The accruing cost is estimated to shave 3 percentage points off the country’s gross domestic product annually.

Frighteningly, according to the 2017 report of the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi, the official statistics are an underestimate. It reveals that over the last two decades the burden of road traffic injuries in India has increased sharply. In 1990, road accidents were the 13th leading cause of death and in 2016 it had moved up to the rank of eighth. According to the same study, and also an oft-ignored fact, a third of the fatalities in road accidents are pedestrians (a logical given as most cities don’t have pavements and if they do then they are encroached, leaving pedestrians more vulnerable to bad driving).

Now Gadkari wants to change all this. Immediately after the bill cleared Parliament, the minister took to Twitter and said: Congratulating every citizen on passing of ‘The motor vehicle amendment bill’ which will pave way to safer roads. I am thankful to the members of the house who realised the gravity of the subject and voted in the favour of the bill.

The amendments to the existing law piloted successfully through Parliament by the minister will put in place new rules, which among other things will effect a steep increase in fines and also rewrite the norms for the transport administration—with a greater emphasis on a hands-free approach to minimize contact with the consumer and thereby the opportunity for graft. At the same time, it also provides cashless treatment of road accident victims during the golden hour, when the survival rate of patients is at its best if provide timely medical care, and protection for good Samaritans who take the initiative and rush the injured to hospital.

There is no doubt that Gadkari brings a certain passion to the task, something most visible in the way he upped the institutional ability in road building in his first stint as minister to a very impressive 200km a week—that is the distance between Delhi and Agra. Several would also recall his dedication to road safety in his frequent appeals aired on radio targeting people driving two-wheelers who, as he pointed out, derive a peculiar pleasure from not wearing helmets. But let us accept the basic truth that the minister alone cannot bring about this much needed behavioural change on India’s roads.

What the newly amended law has done is to provide the ecosystem to effect the desired change. It is now up to the administrators to implement the new norms in letter and spirit and for road users like us to adhere to the rules. So next time you think of jumping a light or violating the zebra crossing, stop yourself. Not only will you be contributing to much needed behavioural change on the roads, but also in the process avoid a hefty fine that could leave your pocket considerably lighter.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.


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