The Union road transport ministry last week directed state governments to remove speed breakers on highways. The rationale was that the bumps hamper smooth movement of vehicles, cause accidents and that their removal will help traffic move quicker.
Let’s sample what happens when vehicles move without speed restrictions. On the notorious deadly Mumbai-Pune Expressway, irresponsible driving alone has resulted in a large number of accidents and several casualties.
In most cases, the hapless pedestrian is blamed for every crime committed by the motorist. However, pedestrians cannot be banned for accidents on the expressway because they are banned along with bicycles and all two-wheelers. But generally speaking, the mobility of the poor is threatened at every step.
Here is the irony: A country claiming to be democratic and even socialist should have car-free zones, as is the practice in several European countries. But India does not have a single such zone. In fact, the whole system displays utter contempt for the pedestrian.
Reckless driving is almost the norm on the expressway, where speeding vehicles often cross the median strip, driving head-on into vehicles coming from the opposite side. The victims are invariably motorists or other passengers in cars.
With this mind, the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation now wants to construct crash barriers to absorb the impact of vehicles. The authorities admit that they are helpless with regard to acting against motorists who flout speed limits. So instead of penalising these motorists, these authorities are focusing instead on saving the lives of other motorists.
So while the government is trying to protect motorists, but why is it so callous when it comes to the lives of pedestrians? Does the central government realise that its directive to remove speed breakers poses a grave threat to pedestrians? Has the system ever shown even a hundredth of the concern it displays towards the powerful automobile lobby and car owners?
Lakhs have to cross the country's highways on a daily basis to get to schools, colleges, offices and markets. Speed breakers are built for the benefit of such people. But now, even that safeguard is being done away with.
Bad planning, the government machinery, the car lobby and motorists are responsible for most mishaps. But it is the poor who are blamed and accused of coming in the way, when it’s actually callous drivers who should be blamed.
The Congress and other political parties are known to be fascinated with the highway culture. But the Bharatiya Janata Party has taken this obsession to a whole new level. While they may aspire to replicate the Autobahns in Germany, supporters of the highway lobby should remember that autobahns do not threaten pedestrians while our highways are a constant menace to them.
It is one thing to drive fast on an Autobahn, quite another to speed on India’s highways. Our speed fanatics should also remember that there is an increasing demand in Germany to reduce the speed limits on highways. According to research by the Norway Institute of Transport Economics, an increase of 3mph in the speed limit would result in 25 extra deaths annually.
The problem ultimately is that governments – central and state – are more worried about motor vehicles and their owners while being clearly indifferent towards the safety of pedestrians.
With technical improvements, motor cars have now become much safer, but this has only made motorists more arrogant, callous and dangerous. These motorists drive with abandon, knowing that their vehicles are safer, that air cushions and other devices will save them.
Getting away with it
Our rich and arrogant are wantonly mowing down people on roads in a manner that would put to shame the aristocrat in Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities.
In the novel, the pitiless Marquis St Evremonde runs over a child with his horse carriage. Far from being apologetic, Evremonde castigates the child’s family for risking an injury to his horse. He then arrogantly flings a coin at the child’s family.
In a way, the prevailing conditions for common people may be worse than in Dickensian times. Today’s perpetrators do not want to pay any compensation, they run away from the scene of the crime, are drunk, unrepentant, and would have us believe that their driver was at the wheel.
This ruse of blaming the driver is an old one, covered in detail in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Recent cases of poor people being mowed down by luxurious vehicles show how the poor are constantly at the mercy of the affluent on the country's roads.
The way our ruling class valorizes and glorifies speed on roads, it seems to be least concerned about the fact that India accounts for the highest number of road deaths in the world, which may actually be much higher than recorded. There are countless instances of such cases not being pursued and even failing to make it to the police register.
Clearly, it is imperative that we educate the government machinery and introduce humanity on our roads. The problem cannot be solved merely with stricter laws and enforcement. The emphasis should be on more civilised behaviour by drivers, not mere adherence to law.