With over a million deaths on Indian roads, we have to make road safety a year-round obsession
Most statistics surrounding road deaths in India are shocking because there comes a realisation that so many of these are wholly preventable. In 2017, over 26,000 people, who died in road accidents, had not been using their seat belt. In the same year, of the 48,746 people who died while riding scooters and motorcycles, a whopping 73.8 per cent did not wear helmets. This must be seen in the context of huge anti-helmet movements that are currently being organised in Mumbai, particularly in Pune, where politicians and self-styled civil society leaders have actively opposed the enforcement of headgear rules by the police. So, as the road safety week comes to an end, it becomes apparent that Indians care two hoots for the concept. Of course, using helmets and seat belts is no guarantee that serious injuries and death won’t happen but they can dramatically reduce the risk. In fact, insurance companies have been known to not pay out claims when they found that drivers or riders were not using safety equipment or were breaking the law by overloading a vehicle or driving on the wrong side among others. They are perfectly justified in doing so.
Later this year, several safety features will become mandatory for cars, including speed warnings, anti-lock brakes, at least one driver airbag and others. Two-wheelers, too, will have to feature anti-lock brakes and while this move will drive up the cost of vehicles and has some parts of the automotive industry cribbing, the fact is that these changes, while welcome, will not make much of a difference unless Indians start taking their own driving habits more seriously. Of course, there are some fundamental issues with road safety in India. For example, vehicles of varying speeds, particularly slow-moving e-rickshaws or cycle-rickshaws carrying goods such as reinforcing bars, operate on arterial urban roads and highways, posing a danger to themselves and other road users. At the same time, vehicles are overloaded far beyond permissible capacity. School vans ferrying children often carry 12 of them alongside the driver with school bags loaded on the roof, far more than the six-eight people the van should carry. The big problem in India is one of enforcement and the traffic police in many cities is overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. Just look at the rampant use of mobile phones while driving nowadays even by two-wheeler drivers. Indian road users are putting not only their own lives but those of others, particularly pedestrians, at risk. While official statistics said that just under 150,000 people died in 2017, we must accept that the number could be much higher and it is unacceptable. If any government wishes to fix the country’s myriad problems, they should start with fixing India’s traffic first. If people are disciplined on the road, maybe they will be disciplined elsewhere too.