To say that India has killer roads may not be an exaggeration because the National Crime Records Bureau says there were 148,000 road accident deaths in 2015, or three every 10 minutes. While this number is estimated to be the highest in the world, one might argue this status as the World Health Organisation estimated over 261,367 road traffic deaths in China in 2013 as against their official number of 58,539. However, it also estimated 207,551 deaths for India as against the 137,572 that was officially reported.
Irrespective of whether India is first or second in this regard, the fact of the matter is that road safety is a serious issue in a country with only 2% of global motor vehicles that account for over 10% of global road traffic deaths. Apart from the loss of lives, there are serious and minor injuries that impact people’s lives. The majority of victims belong to the 15-34 age group, which means families lose their breadwinners. Numerous studies show that India loses anywhere between 3% and 5% of its gross domestic product due to road traffic incidents each year.
The Motor Vehicle Act, 1988, which governs road safety in India, traces its origin to 1939 and 1914. It was drafted when the motorisation scenario was at its earliest stage and supporting policies were needed to give it a boost. Hence, most of its provisions revolve around the movement of goods and passengers, with safety as an afterthought. Therefore, while we all talk about road safety, the fatality numbers keep going north because the country has still not addressed three key issues:
There are many in India who drive vehicles without proper driving licences. And the majority who have proper licences will vouch for the fact that the licencing process in practice is totally different from what is prescribed in the rules. While there is no scientific data on the number of fake licences in the country, Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari’s statement that 30% of all licences are bogus, which he made in June 2015 and reiterated on January 29, may not be off the mark.
One of the main reasons for this is that the regional transport authority or regional transport office of a particular district that issues driving licences severely lacks in capacity. It is widely reported that a motor vehicles inspector, on average, has to process around 100 driving licence applications in a day. This means he can devote less than five minutes per application – and it is not humanly possible to judge a driver in that time period.
Also, a person should ideally hold only one driving licence, as in the case with passports. But there is no mechanism or database to check if people have multiple licences. This practice seems common for commercial drivers and makes enforcement a herculean task.
The automobile sector contributes around 7% to India’s gross domestic product and while we export state-of-the-art vehicles to other countries, those in the domestic market don’t even meet basic safety standards. In May, several popular models of cars in India failed a basic safety test.
Apart from cars, the safety of two-wheelers is an important factor. This is because motorisation in India, especially in numbers, is not about cars but about two-wheelers. A study by the World Resources Institute India, which works to develop sustainable transport solutions, for the city of Pune found that each two-wheeler rider on an average had met with at least two minor accidents.
The traditional road safety approach has revolved around education and enforcement, but global examples suggest that infrastructure design plays a very important role. More so in urban areas, as it has been estimated that our cities and towns account for a quarter of total road fatalities in the country, with most of the victims being pedestrians and cyclist. If we want to get to the root cause, then improvement of infrastructure for vulnerable road users is key in saving lives.
The infrastructure of our roads is also tied to speed. While most city roads have a posted speed limit of 50 kmph or less, yet, they are designed for vehicles to travel at 80 kmph to 100 kmph. Therefore, the infrastructure is designed for speeding, which makes it inherently unsafe.
Amending the Motor Vehicles Act is, therefore, a necessity to address road safety. And while numerous attempts have been made in the past three decades, all have been unsuccessful. But a big step in this direction came in August, when the Union cabinet approved the Motor Vehicle Amendment Bill – which entails stiffer penalties for traffic offences in a bid to make roads safer, and computerised testing to improve the licencing process, among other reforms.
The Bill is currently with the Rajya Sabha’s standing committee on transport. Its recommendation and the Bill were to be discussed in the winter session of Parliament, but that could not happen as the session was washed out. It is again listed for discussion in the ongoing Budget session. It is high time India’s legislators recognise the seriousness of the issue and take up the amendment on an urgent basis, because India has lost far too many lives to its roads and it cannot afford to lose any more.
Amit Bhatt is Director, Integrated Transport, of the World Resources Institute India.