In July last year, Nitin Gadkari, the minister for road transport and highways, informed Parliament that India loses over 1.5 lakh lives in road traffic accidents every year. More damningly, the country has only about 2% of the world’s motor vehicles but accounts for over 12% of its traffic accident deaths, making the Indian road network the most unsafe on the planet.

Unsafe roads are a public health hazard, approaching, in India’s case, an epidemic that not only kills and maims, often for life, but also harms the country’s economic health. According to a study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, road traffic accidents cost India nearly 3% of its gross domestic product a year, or, in absolute terms, about $58,000 million.

Globally, the countries that have succeeded in reducing road accident deaths have done so by enacting strong laws for road safety. India, on the other hand, has been trying to strengthen its road safety legislation for three decades, to no avail.

In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party government drafted the Road Transport and Safety Bill to replace the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988, which currently governs road safety in the country, but it did not move beyond public consultation and was subsequently replaced by the Motor Vehicles Amendment Bill. The bill was passed by the Lok Sabha in April 2017 and sent to the Rajya Sabha, which referred it to a select committee in August 2017.

When the bill was debated in the Rajya Sabha on Monday, the Trinamool Congress, DMK, the Left parties and the Aam Aadmi Party opposed the bill, contending that it diluted the powers of state governments. The Congress added that the legislation was aimed at helping corporations.

The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill proposes to increase the penalties for traffic violations. If the violations are committed by a juvenile driver, their guardian or the owner of their vehicle shall be held accountable. It also protects good Samaritans who come forward to help road accident victims from civil or criminal liability. Further, the bill envisages a Motor Vehicle Accident Fund that will provide for compulsory insurance cover to all road users for certain types of accidents. Another crucial provision holds consultants, contractors and civic agencies accountable for wrong design, or poor construction and maintenance of roads. Lastly, the bill empowers the government to recall vehicles or vehicle parts that don’t meet the required standards and fine their manufacturers up to Rs 500 crore.

Making progress

In the meantime, though, some states have taken steps to improve road safety. Haryana, for example, launched the Vision Zero programme last year which is aimed at reducing road traffic accident fatalities to zero in the long term. It seems to have made a difference already as 10 districts where it was rolled out have reported up to 5% decline in road accident fatalities while the other 12 districts have witnessed an increase in such deaths. This month, Delhi’s state government approved a similar policy; it commits to a 10% reduction in accident deaths annually and targets a “zero road fatality” in the long run.

A strong central legislation will only empower such states to work more effectively towards making their roads safer.

Clearly, the need to pass the Motor Vehicles Amendment Bill urgently cannot be overstated.

Amit Bhatt is Director, Integrated Transport, World Resources Institute India.