We talk of genocides and ethnic cleansing inside India, but how and why we do not consider road safety to be one of the biggest crises in India, would puzzle many in the outside world. With a million road accident deaths over a decade, we must wake up
A few weeks ago, crossing the ‘Mall Mile’ in the Saket region of South Delhi, a white Audi Q7 was parked on the side of the road, with a traffic policeman plaintively pleading with the driver. Curious, your columnist drove past the car and was horrified. The driver had an infant on his lap; money, and at Rs75 lakh plus the Audi Q7 costs a pretty penny, cannot seem to buy smarts.
There are a few people in India who insist that their children sit at the back in proper child seats. There are others who are aware of the safety risks that airbags pose to small children.
The exploding bags of air that often save adults from severe injuries in high-speed accidents can be fatal to children even in slow-speed accidents as they can snap children’s necks or suffocate them. A child in the front seat, particularly on a parent’s lap, itself against the law, can go flying out of the front window in the case of sudden braking. A parent’s hands, no matter how tight, are not seat-belts.
But safety-conscious people are few and far between, and an universal trait among many of them is that they have either studied or worked in countries with a strong road-safety culture; or they work around cars and bikes a lot.
An accident can happen to the safest of drivers, particularly in India where road quality, lighting and the unpredictability of others on the road is a huge factor. A year or so ago, your columnist found himself in a ditch when on the fast lane of a highway the car in front suddenly braked. The car being driven, in that case a BMW3 series, did what it was supposed to, protect its occupants. The guilty driver of the car that caused the accident zoomed away, out of guilt or cowardice.
C’est la Vie.
That is the problem with the Indian attitude to driving. We do not value our own lives on the road. That is why in cities where wearing helmets on two-wheelers or seat-belts in cars is not mandatory, a clear majority of people on the road choose not to wear them. Even in cities like New Delhi, where these are mandatory, you will find those who put their helmets or belts on when they are approaching a police check-point, although the Delhi Traffic Police putting ‘flying squads’ out on motorcycles seems to have had some impact.
Even then, due to pressure from a religious body, the Delhi Government withdrew the notification making it mandatory for women pillion riders to wear a helmet. How any religious leader can consider religion itself more important than a life, is an issue. Despite that, shouldn’t women themselves realise that wearing a helmet is the right, and safe, thing to do. Yes, wearing a helmet can ruin your hairstyle, to paraphrase what one girl said. But then again, so will the wind in your hair.
What is tremendously more shocking though, is not the attitude of adults — grown-ups who should know better — but the way many adults drive with children. Forget the tremendous risk in carrying an infant in a two-wheeler, forget the Audi driver mentioned at the start of this article. Look at the way Indians often send their children to school.
Yes, affordability is an issue, and sometimes parents do not have a choice. But seeing 12 young children and a driver sitting inside a Maruti Omni, dangerously balanced thanks to the school bags on the roof, is scary.
The traffic rules, bizarrely might allow a vehicle designed for eight adults, to carry so many children, it should not; the schools might allow it because most of them will quickly deny any responsibility for children when they leave the school gates. But how on earth can parents, parents who might end up spending huge sums on tuitions and what not, send their children to school in death-traps?
There has to be a higher degree of road safety involved in Government urban transport and highway transport policy. Several newspapers, including The Pioneer, have written about the rampant corruption and chaos that takes place at Regional Passport Offices. But getting a passport, and visiting an RPO is a lot nicer and easier than going to a Regional Transport Office.
The system for testing drivers is a sham, quiz the average road user with a valid driving licence about road signs common in the West, such as the inverted white triangle with the red border (an inverted triangle outlined in white if painted on the road), the “Give Way” sign, and they will not have a clue. After all, who ‘gives way’ on Indian roads.
Getting a licence, while relatively difficult in a city like New Delhi, is incredibly easy in some States. And once a licence has been acquired, people believe they have the ‘right’ to drive. However, the very idea of a licence — any licence — is permission, not a right.
But even if changes are made to the licence system, and even if, more fines for unsafe driving practices are issued, something that will be possible after the introduction of standardised licence plates for vehicles, little will change. Even if India mandates increased levels of vehicular safety, and makes electronic stability programme software mandatory in cars like the Australian Government has just done, it will have minimal impact. This is because, no matter what is done from a policy perspective, the biggest change needs to come in people’s attitudes.
Put a child on a child seat, not on one’s lap. Wear a helmet not because one has to due to traffic rules, but because it might save your life. Buy a car with airbags and anti-lock brakes not because it is the most-expensive model with the fancy alloy wheels, but because those safety features might save your life one day in case of an accident.
And this attitude change can start in schools. Schools here do not have driver training courses unlike schools in many countries. But, at least in cities, most students from a graduating class of school students will either already be driving or will need to learn to drive, sooner rather than later. Driver training for students should make it onto the curriculum, but realistically, that is unlikely to happen, however, some schools could be proactive on this front.
We talk of genocides and ethnic cleansing inside India, but how and why we do not consider road safety to be one of the biggest crises in India, would puzzle many in the outside world. And with a million deaths over a decade, it is time to address this issue both at the policy level and behind the wheel.