Where rubber meets road: India’s states need to fully embrace the new road safety law to save precious lives

Whenever I open a newspaper in India, I come across stories of lives needlessly lost in road crashes. Children riding their bicycles to after-school classes mowed down by speeding vehicles, young fathers on two-wheelers cut down by reckless drivers, cars crashing on badly-lit roads or into wrongly-placed dividers, each heartrending incident leaving a family grieving and traumatised forever.

India’s roads are among the most dangerous in the world. Every year, they claim the lives of about 1,50,000 people, leaving more than five times that number injured or maimed for life. Apart from the enormous suffering they cause, road crashes cost the economy between 3-5% of GDP a year. The country’s recent enactment of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019 is, therefore, a timely step in the right direction. But legislation is just the beginning; a lot will depend on how it is implemented, mainly by the states who are primarily responsible to deliver.

Let’s see what the Act seeks to do. First, it fills a longstanding gap by establishing an independent apex body – the National Road Safety Board – that can set the national agenda and coordinate between the numerous agencies responsible for road safety in India. Establishment of such a lead agency in the early 1970s helped Sweden, for instance, reduce crash fatalities from 17 per 1,00,000 to just 2, over 30-40 years. In the US too, a similar agency, born out of landmark legislation in 1966, led to dramatic reduction in road fatalities.

In India, a few states, such as Kerala and Gujarat, have established their own independent road safety authorities as counterparts to the national agency. For these agencies to be successful, however, their capabilities will need to be built, and outcome-specific funding allocated to enable them to fulfil their agendas.

Second, the Act makes all those involved in road construction and maintenance – road agencies, contractors, consultants or concessionaires – accountable for the safety of the roads they build. This marks the first time that road engineering is being looked at seriously as a factor in road crashes in India. From now on, all roads will have to undergo a safety audit at each stage – during design, construction and operation. For this landmark provision to be effective, however, road safety standards will need to be defined. Only then can road engineers be trained to follow them, and audits be conducted to see if the roads measure up.

Third, the Act emphasises the establishment of a nationwide data base that highlights the cause of each crash – defective road infrastructure, faulty vehicle design, or human error. Global experience shows that reliable crash data helps in drafting the right policies and allocating the right resources. In India, Tamil Nadu’s GIS-based database maps road accidents, identifies the most crash-prone hot spots, and pinpoints corrective action. Since the system was linked to medical facilities across the state, the response time of emergency medical teams has fallen from 30 to 11 minutes, bringing it at par with the world’s best trauma services.

Fourth, the Act streamlines the often-cumbersome systems for the registration of vehicles and the issue of drivers’ licences and reduces the need for manual interventions by the traffic police. This system has proved successful in many countries. In New South Wales in Australia, for instance, the introduction of speed radar brought down fatalities by almost 90%.

Fifth, the Act promotes safer vehicles, strengthening regulations to bring the country at par with major car manufacturing nations. The authorities will now have the power to recall vehicles or vehicle components that are not found safe for both occupants and other road users. Again, the challenge will lie in enforcing these standards through a network of modern vehicle inspection centres where all vehicles – domestically built or imported, used or new – will be subject to regular inspections.

Finally, the Act makes it mandatory for bystanders to take accident victims to hospital and insulates them from harassment. Hospitals are mandated to provide immediate attention, and victims are eligible for cashless treatment, while those with serious injuries are entitled to compensation.

The time is right for India to raise the bar on road safety. Motorisation is growing, road construction is booming, and legislation of international standards is in place. The government will now need to act quickly and effectively, while states and cities will need to embrace the law in both letter and spirit to improve the quality of life of their people.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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