Protect people who help accident victims

It was Albert Einstein who said that the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing. This applies to many citizens who are mute spectators to road accidents which are killing thousands of people across the country. Not that people are insensitive to accident victims, but our police, the medical and legal system have made many good Samaritans think twice before extending their timely help.

The World Health Organisation estimated in 2010, that India suffers the highest number of road accident deaths in the world and approximated 15 deaths per hour. A number of studies and surveys have shown that 80 per cent of the road accident victims could be saved provided medical treatment is made available within one hour (golden hour) of the accident.

In 1985, advocate Paramanand Katara filed a writ petition by way of a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court, wherein it was stated that though Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the Right to Life to every citizen, in the matter of road accidents victims, nearly 60 per cent, die while awaiting treatment, even after having been brought to the hospital. The petition mentioned that deaths take place as the doctors would not attend the victims until a police case is registered as these are medico-legal cases.

Following the Supreme Court order, the Motor Vehicle Act was amended as Section 134, in 1994, to make it mandatory on both the driver/owner of the vehicle to take the accident victim to the nearest doctor, but also casts a duty on the doctor to treat the victim without waiting for any formalities. However, due to lack of knowledge and awareness among citizens this important amendment has not come to the rescue of accident victims.

There are other reasons why citizens hesitate to help accident victims. It is not because they do not want to, but due to the fear of being caught in the cesspool of legal tangles. A nationwide survey done by Savelife Foundation revealed that 88 per cent of the respondents were reluctant to help for fear of legal hassles, including repeated police questioning and court appearances.

Of the respondents who were unlikely to assist the injured victims, 77 per cent stated that hospitals unnecessarily detain good Samaritans and refuse treatment if money is not paid. A little over 35 per cent of all bystanders felt that their responsibility ends with calling the emergency numbers. The survey also revealed that if a supportive legal system is in place, a majority of 88 per cent would come forward and help injured victims on the road.

Since the Paramanand Katara case, there has been a demand to put in place a system wherein the good Samaritans/bystanders are encouraged to help accident victims. The Law Commission of India in its 201st report (August 2006) made several recommendations, besides proposing a model law.

In October 2014, disposing the writ petition filed by Savelife Foundation, the  Supreme Court directed the government to come out with specific steps to encourage good Samaritans and bystanders to come forward to help accident victims. In turn, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has published a notification containing 15 guidelines, which needs wider dissemination in the interest of the public.

The guidelines say that a bystander or good Samaritan, including eyewitness of a road accident may take the injured to the nearest hospital and he or she shall be allowed to leave immediately. The hospital authorities are not supposed to question the Samaritan except getting his/her address.

The state government has been asked to evolve a suitable framework to compensate the Samaritans to encourage other citizens to come forward to help the accident victims. The guidelines make it clear that the good Samaritans will not be liable for any civil and criminal liability. It is suggested that video conferencing may be used for the examination of these Samaritans.

No compulsion on Samaritans

In future, a bystander or good Samaritan, who makes a call to inform the police or the emergency services shall not be compelled to reveal his/her name and personal details on phone or in person, except if such disclosure is made voluntarily. The hospitals also cannot compel him/her to enter the details in medico-legal case forms and other documents.

In case any public official compels the good Samaritan to reveal his personal details, the state government shall take disciplinary action against such an erring authority. It is interesting to note if the eyewitness, bystander or good Samaritan voluntarily agrees to attend hearings, examination etc., he shall be asked questions on a single occasion and should not be called often. The state governments were asked to develop a standard operating procedures within 30 days (June 11, 2015, was the last day).

Apart from the transport authorities and the police, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has also been asked to issue certain guidelines to all registered public and private hospitals. Hospitals should not detain the bystander or good Samaritan and should not demand payment for registration/ admission except if the Samaritan is a family member or relative of the injured.

In case a doctor does not respond in an emergency situation, it will be treated as a professional misconduct under the relevant clause of the Indian Medical Council Regulations. Action will be taken against the doctor as per regulations.

Most importantly, all hospitals should publish a charter in Hindi, English and the local language stating that the it will not detain the bystander or good Samaritan or ask to deposit money for the treatment of the victim. In case the good Samaritan makes a request, hospital authorities shall provide an acknowledgement confirming that an injured person was brought to the hospital. State governments have been directed to prepare a format of this acknowledgement. The governments and other departments are also required to give wide publicity to these guidelines.

(The writer is Member, Central Consumer Protection Council, Government of India)

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