Driving India to safety

Driving India to safety

No more delays: With road mishaps claiming a life every 4 mins, changes to motor rules was long overdue

Driving India to safety

The Motor Vehicles (Amendments) Act 2016 was passed in the Lok Sabha on April 10. Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari, while introducing the bill, stated that he could not wait because he is in a hurry to reduce road traffic deaths by 50%. The commitment to reduce traffic crashes is certainly a laudable objective. In fact, road traffic accidents has been recognised as a serious problem at the national level and Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH ) has been issuing policy statements and announcing programmes to address the rapidly growing safety problem since the revision of the Motor Vehicle Act (MVA) in 1988.

Since then, a common theme in all policies and government initiatives has been the emphasis on improving driver education, driver training, driver licensing system and the need for higher penalties. The number of deaths have continued to increase at a rate of 8-9% per year over the past 20 years.

About 75% of the victims are pedestrians, motorised two wheeler-riders and bicyclists (vulnerable road users or VRUs) both on intercity roads and intracity roads. National data available with MoRTH and NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) does not report the involvement of pedestrians, motorcyclists and bicyclists in fatal crashes correctly. The rate of traffic fatalities has increased 3-4 times in cities where highways have been upgraded.

The amendments have been proposed to primarily address the growing number of deaths in road traffic crashes. Once again, the important amendments emphasise driver education, stricter licensing systems and higher penalties for various traffic offences. The bill has 92 clauses with 16 new insertions, four omissions and 72 amendments. Penalties for all offences have been increased through insertions and few new penalties have been introduced like faulty registration details, the concessionaire or the contractor who is responsible for faulty road design or has not followed standards, the guardians of juvenile offenders to be penalised, and states to have power to increase penalties.
While the penalties have to be there for offenders, there seems to be no correlation between stricter and higher penalties with reduction in road traffic crashes in countries where road traffic deaths have reduced over the years. Higher fines as a deterrent to traffic crashes are based on the assumption that the driver is careless, and that the fear of higher penalty will encourage “careful” behaviour on the road.

This goes against the current scientific understanding for reducing traffic crashes that promotes the design of a system which can forgive the mistakes made by road users. The Vision Zero, which has been adopted in many countries (Sweden, Australia, The Netherlands etc) to address the problem of road traffic deaths, recognises as a basic starting point that human beings make conscious and subconscious mistakes. That is why accidents occur, and the safety work must in the first instance be directed at those factors which can prevent accidents leading to death and serious injury. Accidents can be accepted, but not their serious consequences. According to Vision Zero, it is not the individual road-user who has the ultimate responsibility but rather the so-called system designers. In Vision Zero, the responsibility for safety is a chain of responsibility that both begins and ends with the system designers.

The system designers in road traffic crashes happen to be the state and national governments responsible for making roads and ensuring that the vehicle manufacturers produce safe vehicles, and systems are created to monitor performance of road standards, transport operations and effectiveness of various laws and legislations. The current MVA includes provisions for recalling defective vehicles and holding the contractor or the concessionaire responsible for faulty road design. However, if there are no systems to continuously monitor the performance of road designs and evaluate performance of vehicles’ effectiveness, good intentions will remain weak. The amendment on safety devices, like use of safety belts, helmets (by all those riding motorised two wheeler) etc., is a welcome addition. The bill requires all those above four years of age to wear a helmet. While the importance of helmets for two-wheeler riders cannot be ignored, the question arises as to why most states have not implemented this when helmets were made compulsory in the 1988 Act itself.

Wish list
Use of safety belts and giving way to emergency vehicles are required but without mechanisms for implementation, many of the amendments may remain as a wish list only. Insertion of Section 66A allows the Centre to formulate the National Transport Policy to promote better integration of road, rail and other transport systems. Section 66B promotes public-private partnerships to improve last mile connectivity, improve rural transport, reduce congestion and enhance safety.

The assumption is that with more competition, better public transport services will be available to the public at large. However, private operators focus on maximising profits and externalities like accidents, pollution and service to the needy are ignored. Private operators have to be carefully regulated. Without effective regulatory mechanisms, private operators will come into the market, existing state transport corporations will suffer and all negative externalities will increase. In short, the overall impact will be exactly the opposite of what this amendment is intended for.

The bill proposes increased computerisation of various services - issue or grant of licences or permits, filing of forms or applications (such as for licences and registration), receipt of money (such as fines) and change of address. This will perhaps improve our data base for registered vehicles and drivers. Every state should be encouraged to propose a time-bound roadmap for adopting this system. In the current system where often drivers’ addresses are not updated and passenger vehicles do not require annual registration, electronic surveillance for speeding, red light jumping and violation of other offences remain meaningless since the correct address of the driver is not known. If the address change requirement is implemented in all earnest, the e-challan system will become more effective. Effectiveness of provision for the protection of Good Samaritans, cashless payment for accident victims may look useful, but a careful evaluation of these systems in the coming year will be required to prove it.

I see a glimmer of hope in Clause 91 which states that the Centre may constitute a National Safety Board to look into various aspects of traffic safety. If because of this amendment we end up with a permanent agency with safety experts, we can hope to see a decline in traffic fatalities in the coming years. On the other hand, if another version of the National Safety Council is established which acts on mere “common sense” as opposed to scientific evidence, then our dream of safety will remain just that in the coming years.

(The writer is professor, Department of Transport Engineering, IIT-Delhi)