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Road safety legislation in India has run into heavy traffic. The country will pay a heavy price with each passing hour as it delays the introduction of the important Road Transport and Safety Bill.
With a population of over a billion people, it's no surprise that fatalities from road accidents in India amount to little more than just statistics. Sometimes, though, a single death makes a difference and plunges an entire nation into grief.
Just days after being sworn in, newly elected Minister for Rural Development Gopinath Munde succumbed to his injuries sustained in a tragic car crash in New Delhi in 2014. His death added to the worrying list of fatalities that have given Indian roads the undesirable tag of being the most dangerous in the world. According to official figures, more than 150,000 people die on the roads of India from preventable crashes. In other words, 10 per cent of the world's road deaths take place in our country, a place that accounts for less than 3 per cent of the world's vehicles! To put it another way, of the 1.3 million people who lose their lives each year on the world's roads, more than one in 10 will be on Indian roads.
The Minister's accident occurred right in the heart of India's capital city New Delhi, a city with relatively better road infrastructure, the best medical facilities and access to the best in trauma care in the country. Could this death, therefore, have been avoided? Could better vehicle-safety measures and better post-crash care have altered the outcome? Unfortunately, the accident was a side-crash that impacted the rear passenger. While a safety belt does not help in such cases, could reinforcement bars in the door structure and side impact air-bags have reduced the extent of the injuries? What about on-site medical care by paramedics?
It doesn't say much that the government still hasn't made air bags mandatory. Meanwhile, crash tests that were conducted for the first time by Global NCAP (the world's car safety watchdog) on five made-in-India cars revealed results that were nothing short of shocking. While the tests were done in 2014, consider the fact that India is one of the top five car markets in the world and the only one in that list still without an effective car safety programme. Also, there is no legislation for crash-testing vehicles. Estimates are that the country could become the world's third largest market by 2020.
Both these issues are to be tackled in the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme (expected to start from 2018). Harman Singh, Founder & President, Arrive SAFE, and a member of the Global Alliance of NGOs for road safety, says, safety checks and assessments should not only be mandated by law but they should also be a continuous process. Moreover, given that the largest chunk of victims are pedestrians, followed by those on two wheels, buses and trucks, Singh says, 'there should be equal focus on safety of passengers in open vehicles like pick-up vans, jeeps, auto-rickshaws and two-wheelers.'
Nonetheless, for those who are moving their family into a car, the belief is that they are moving to a safer product. As more and more people do that, the products should be safer, shouldn't they?
THE WRONG KIND OF MUSCLE POWER
Not long ago, in the south-eastern city of Hyderabad, the High Court took up the issue of riders not wearing their helmets. An education drive was conducted that lasted all of three months after which the High Court directed the Telangana state government to start enforcing the same. Vinod Kumar Kanumala, Chief Functionary, Indian Federation of Road Safety (IFROS), was also a part of the drive as he campaigned in schools, colleges and corporate campuses to raise awareness about the new directive and the perils of neglecting helmets.
However, once enforcement began, Kanumala says it was done for just two-three days. 'It should have been for at least three months to ensure complete compliance,' says Kanumala.
The problem, Kanumala reveals, does not lie with the much maligned police force. 'The hierarchy is such that it does not allow the Police Commissioners or other bureaucrats to do their work. Inevitably, there is political interference,' he says. He points to another instance in 2005 when the AP state government had then tried to make helmets compulsory for riders. It even fixed a base price for helmets in order to make them affordable for students and others. The scheme had to be withdrawn within a month and the initiative failed to take off.
Industry insiders say that various groups of people, like the taxi-drivers' or the auto-rickshaws' unions, for instance, are quick to lobby their local MLAs and ministers in case of new laws that impose additional requirements. 'These politicians then exert pressure on the bureaucrats to go soft on them. This is the kind of system we are living in today,' says Kanumala.
No wonder India ranks pretty low with respect to enforcement in a list of 10 South-East Asian countries compiled by the World Health Organization. In fact, also with respect to motorcycle helmets, the report by WHO shows India has no law/does not meet the best practice for helmets.
IMPENDING LEGISLATION, HURDLES
It's not surprising that the new Bill that goes beyond token gestures and seeks to overhaul the entire system, has run into stiff opposition. In fact, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has gone on record to say that vested interests are obstructing the progress of the Bill. 'I am very sorry to say that the Road Safety Bill has been pending for the last six to seven months on account of lack of unanimity,' Gadkari told Infrastructure Today.
The problem, industry insiders say, is to do with the various state governments who see a major revenue source being cut off. If passed, the Regional Transport Office (RTO) system, as it exists, will cease to exist. Registering of vehicles will be done by the vehicle dealer and the RTO inspector will be accompanied by only an assistant. Issuing licenses will be the prerogative of a centralised authority.
'We are all waiting for a stronger law and hoping the Bill will be passed,' says Milind Bharambe, Mumbai's Joint Commissioner of Police (Traffic). Traffic police officials across the country are hoping stronger legislation and heftier fines will mean a true fear of the law and a reluctance to repeat offences. 'Today, a fine of a Rs.100 in a city like Mumbai means nothing. We need fines of about Rs.3,000 or Rs.5,000,' says Bharambe. However, he is cognisant of the difficulties of such proposals. 'While this is the best solution for large cities with spending power, it is probably the entire monthly salary in a small town or village,' Bharambe adds.
Due to such issues, the pending Bill is on the Concurrent List and may be passed once these are sorted out.
In fact, IFROS has also written to all 545 members of the Lok Sabha urging them to support the new Bill. In the same letter, it has also requested them to make India a 'black spot free' nation with the help of the MPlad (Member of Parliament Local Area Development) fund (`5 crore per annum). However, says Kanumala, 'Local governments are opposing the new steps in the proposed new Bill and it is currently a very difficult situation.'
Singh of ArriveSAFE is not impressed with the government's latest efforts. Singh points out that 'everyone knows a drunk driver is not only risking his own life but that of others as well. Availability of liquor along the highways tempt road users to stop for a drink. We, as an NGO, are fighting it out in the Courts to get liquor vends removed from the highways. The High Courts do order removal. However, the states move the Supreme Court opposing the HC order and the Attorney General of India represents the states!'
He adds, 'Honestly, I am not expecting any improvement even after passing of this Bill. Earlier, too, the Sundar Committee Report was formulated and it never saw the light of day. The issue of safety is the last point on anyone's mind, right from policy-makers to enforcement agencies. There are success stories from countries like Australia that were grappling with the same problems nearly 40 years back. They had the will that we lack. I had high hopes from the government that is in clear majority but if it too faces challenge from vested interests, sadly, things will remain on paper only.'
WHO's report states that as average traffic speed increases, so too does the likelihood of a crash. If a crash does happen, the risk of death and serious injury is greater at higher speeds, especially for pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.
Setting and enforcing national speed limits is an important step in reducing speed. It is important for local authorities to not only have the legal authority to reduce national limits, but also to manage local speeds according to particular road situations and in conjunction with other traffic calming or speed management policies.
However, WHO's survey showed that only four of the 10 participating countries in SE Asia allow local authorities to reduce national speed limits. Only two countries in the region (Bhutan and Myanmar) meet both legislative criteria for best practice on urban speed management. Both have a national urban maximum speed limit of 50 km/h, and local authorities have the power to reduce this limit to ensure safe speeds locally.
However, none of the 10 countries in the survey have national policies to separate vulnerable road users from high-speed traffic. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists (vulnerable road users) make up 50 per cent of road traffic deaths in SE Asia: in some countries, this figure rises to over 80 per cent. The safety needs of these groups must be addressed if a decline in the number of regional deaths is to be achieved.
Meanwhile, some cities are planning to upgrade traffic systems to keep pace with increasing numbers of vehicles and rising incidences of over-speeding and rash driving. To reduce traffic violations, the traffic police will need special devices known as Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras. ' These are specialized cameras which use cutting edge technology for detecting different kinds of traffic violations, leading to better enforcement of traffic rules,ö says Atul Shukla, VP, Traffic Safety & Security Division, 3M India.
While ANPR cameras are being increasingly adopted by the Mumbai Traffic Police, Shukla says there are many states that are considering ANPR for their surveillance programmes as well. The fact that the government is mandating High Security Registration Plates (HSRP) is positive, as these are needed for ANPR cameras to work with accuracy, thereby making the roads safer. '3M's cameras are being evaluated by different authorities at the moment. It may be about a couple of months before you start seeing them deployed across various cities,' reveals Shukla.
However, signage has been one area which has seen a lot of action. Retro-reflective signage, delineators, median markers, pavement markers and other reflective road furniture are all in use and primarily meant to increase visibility, whether in the day time or night. 'Retro reflective material is of different types and type 11 is proven to provide the best visibility over long distances. Suffice to say, depending on the number of lanes and various other conditions, there are different standards laid down and those become the basis for choosing a particular type of material over others,ö says Shukla.
He reveals the company has just introduced a new product in the Indian market called Solar Raised Pavement Markers (SRPM). These can be installed at critical road locations such as median openings, toll plazas, roundabouts, hazard areas and flyovers. Providing 360 degree illumination, it helps in uniform visibility from all directions. It also exceeds the compression load requirements of 13.635 tonnes, making it suitable for rugged Indian road conditions. 'You will see these across India very soon,' says Shukla.
In the current context, as the government focuses aggressively on building national highways, it must simultaneously ensure the right kind of signages for those long stretches of highways. Steps must be taken to ensure driving at night time becomes easy and that the headlights of vehicles, road signs and road curvature are all properly visible in order to promote safety. Efforts must be made to make driving at night an enhanced experience and which aids visibility. 'Considering that there are several dark stretches and blind spots across India's highways, it is imperative to implement retro reflective solutions to improve visibility, thereby saving precious lives on Indian roads.' says Shukla.
Last but not least, in a country like India where legislative reform requires both time and political willingness, strictly enforced measures supported by public awareness can have a positive impact.
While students and not-for-profit organisations form the usual groups that hold awareness campaigns, there are corporate companies, too, that have taken up the cause for road safety. 'The economic, social and health losses resulting from road traffic injuries are not inevitable. There is substantial evidence confirming that road traffic injuries can be prevented. This initiative is just another way to create awareness amongst the masses because road accidents result in the loss of people's lives and impact our society,' says Bimal Dayal, CEO of the Gurgaon-based Indus Towers.
The company recently announced its association with the Gurgaon Traffic Police to ensure road safety by disbursing 4,000 traffic cones. This was a step taken to help in managing traffic effectively. In the past, the company also organised its 'iFIGHT' campaigns for the inspection and hygiene of two-wheeler and four-wheeler vehicles. (iFIGHT stands for Four-wheeler safety, Inspection of vehicle, Go safe, Hygiene of vehicle and Two-wheeler safety).
The efforts were amplified with the use of road shows and road safety rallies to grab mass attention and create awareness amongst a broader set of stakeholders. As the acronym suggests, the company allocates different days for iFIGHT (each day being devoted to the activity related to the alphabet. This is carried out in all 15 circles the company is present in and is an ongoing activity undertaken once every year).
Dayal says the response has been overwhelming. 'We are hopeful in making a continued positive change. Basis these changes, we have managed to halt all our night movements on two wheelers from midnight to 05:00 AM. We have also started tracking speed of four wheelers through our vehicle tracking system (VTS),' says Dayal.
In 2014, with the help of the local traffic police in all circles, a week-long programme on safety awareness focussed on activities such as surprise checks, distribution of Consequence Matrix and vehicle inspection. E-learning/voice messages and an SMS/quiz on road safety were also a part of the activities.
For a problem with many dimensions, the best approach is a multi-pronged strategy. The first steps must be to ensure enforcement of existing legislation (compulsory use of seat-belts, helmets, penalties for over-speeding, drunk driving).
The second important step would be to improve design and engineering measures. Road signs, markings and crash barriers, for instance, should be treated as bare necessities rather than adornments. Singh of ArriveSAFE says, 'Most bridges don't even have crash guard railings. Instead, they just have fragile weak pipes. We have complained about nearly 10 road crashes in the states of Punjab and Haryana where vehicles (mostly cars) have fallen into rivers or canals. Till now, neither the PWD officials have been booked nor remedial measures taken. Similarly, the road zones under construction or under repair lack any kind of warning signs making them accident-prone areas. The pedestrians and users of non-motorized vehicles have to make their way and cross these areas, risking their lives. The Indian Road Congress has developed standards for each and every component of road infrastructure but these are not implemented anywhere in India.'
Recent safety research from around the world suggests that road and street design influences driver and pedestrian behaviour very significantly. India's national highways do not follow international safety practices; its urban roads ignore the needs of the majority of road users, i.e. bicyclists and pedestrians. New laws and standards have to be enacted to make these roads much safer. Ensuring provisions for vulnerable road users like pavements and wide road shoulders can significantly bring down the number of injuries.
The third step is tightening the driver licensing system and ensuring vehicle compliance with safety standards.
Finally, improving the capacity and access to trauma care centres is crucial in order to ensure victims receive quality medical care within the first crucial hour. The necessary infrastructure developments, policy changes and levels of enforcement have not kept pace with vehicle use thus far. As the authorities that be debate the passage of the new Road Transport and Safety Bill, it seems clear the road to safety may be long and hard and fraught with more obstacles.
On the other hand, with ever-busier roads and young people increasingly keen to jump behind the wheel, it's never been more important to get driver safety into conversation at an early age. The media, youth icons and role models all play an important role in the way early impressions can be built amongst the youth. In the US, the media has very effectively marginalised cigarette smoking as being uncool among the younger generation. It's hard to do the same in India when Bollywood stars are smoking cigarettes while stunt-driving their cars.
Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways and Shipping In our country, every year, 1,50,000 deaths are registered in five lakh accidents. I am very sorry to say that the Road Safety Bill has been pending for the last six to seven months on account of lack of unanimity as the subject is also under the Concurrent List. However, we have now decided to form a Road Safety Authority. We have also taken a decision that we will be spending Rs.11,000 crore on improving the 726 black spots identified by us. These are mostly problems with road engineering and drivers.
Although construction of roads is important, it is even more important as to how can we save lives. I have myself once been in a major accident. In Sweden, only one accident is reported in a year, while in India we have five lakh accidents. Similarly, nearly 30 per cent of the total driving license holders are bogus. And all that is all on record. Now, we have to improve the system to make it more transparent, time-bound and effective through the use of e-governance. We have already started 20 driving and training centres. We plan to have 5,000 such centres in the country, especially in the rural areas, in order to fulfill the shortfall of 22 per cent of skilled drivers in the country.
The subject of road safety is a very sensitive one, but I am confident that we will get cooperation from political parties and state governments in due course of time.
Raghav Chandra, Chairman, NHAI
It is not really a problem of funds. It is more about getting the right focus, mindset and action in place. And we are working to get all the four 'Es' - engineering, enforcement, education and emergency - on the ground. When I talk of physical monitoring of roads across a 50-kilometre stretch, across eight-hourly shifts, one element of that would be to have ambulances and paramedics in place. Another aspect would be to educate all those who are connected with this. We need to get on board the insurance companies and other related stakeholders.
Above all, we need to get the engineering in place. In the last ten or fifteen years, the undue emphasis on the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model led to a situation where we compromised on a lot of safety features in order to make projects viable and get them past the approval process. However, we are now re-looking at them, identifying black spots, improving engineering and retrofitting our roads to get things in order. It's a huge exercise.
Road Safety Committee
In April 2014, the Supreme Court set up a three-member committee headed by former Justice KS Radhakrishnan to monitor implementation of road safety measures, including provision of emergency medical help to accident victims. The apex court directed all state governments and central ministries involved in various road safety issues to submit a report to the committee indicating the state of implementation of all laws pertaining to licensing, certification of fitness of vehicles, passenger/weight carrying capacity, use of road safety devices, adherence to road user norms and deployment of adequate manpower for enforcement of existing provisions of law. Since its constitution, the Committee has been engaged in reviewing institutionalised arrangements on road safety by examining the ways in which the four 'Es' - engineering, enforcement, education and emergency - are being progressively implemented. After identifying gaps in road safety by the states, it stresses on the concerned administration to rectify them.
In late March this year, the SC approved one of the key recommendations of the committee that advocated that people saving lives of road accident victims need not fear harassment by police or other authorities. The principle already exists in many developed countries of the world and rules and regulations on the same are broadly known as the Good Samaritan laws.