A public crash course to save lives

A public crash course to save lives

Only a responsible public can foster road safety and establish the path to save lives

Representative Image. Credit: DH File Photo

There are few people in our country who have not lost a family member or friend in a road crash at some point of time; and not a day passes without news of a road crash resulting in horrific deaths or permanent injuries. I use the word road crash, not road accident, advisedly. The term ‘accident’ suggests an event that happens by chance or that is without apparent cause. This is seldom the case with road crashes across India, nearly all of them with specific causes, and most of them eminently preventable.

But to chart a sustainable course of action to save lives, a sense of urgency must inform our response, and the burden of that responsibility must be carried by the citizen-commuters, together with the enforcement authorities. Only a responsible public can foster road safety and establish the path to save lives. But first, we must, as citizens, understand the etiology and the dimensions of the problem.

A recent World Bank report titled ‘Traffic Crash Injuries and Disabilities: The Burden on Indian Society’, the outcome of a study done in collaboration with the Save LIFE Foundation points to several disconcerting facts that should shake us citizens out of the apathy that we display to the right to life and the right to safety on Indian roads.

Consider the following facts: Road crash deaths in India are among the highest in the world. With only 1% of the world’s vehicles, India accounts for nearly 10% of all road crash-related deaths, and the socio-economic burden of road crashes is disproportionately borne by poor households; each year, year after year, close to 150,000 people die due to road accidents, and in the past decade alone over 1.3 million have died and about five million permanently injured; over 40% of the households in rural areas reported at least one death after a road crash, compared to 12% of urban households; and pedestrians, cyclists, and bicyclists are the most vulnerable populations, accounting for more than half the road crash deaths.

Not surprisingly, two-wheelers account for almost 70% of the total vehicles in cities because they are cheaper and more convenient, but they are also 30 times more prone to accidents than cars, and riders suffer a high rate of death and disability. An important piece of empirical evidence that has emerged from a ‘who hit whom’ analysis of road crash data of Bengaluru city, undertaken by the Indian Institute of Science, showed that the two most road crash high-risk citizens, accounting for the highest deaths, were pedestrians and two-wheeler riders.

The evidence pointed to the fact that the majority of deaths of pedestrians were the result of two wheelers hitting them; even as two-wheeler riders were themselves amongst the most deaths, as a result of heavy vehicles hitting them. The stand-out piece of evidence that is unconscionable is that road crashes are now the leading killer of people aged 15-29 years, aggravated by lack of formal training and underage driving. Yet, we remain far from taking any meaningful steps to address this problem in substantive ways.

To do so, we need to understand the preponderance, as a result of our collective failure as citizens, of the four key causes of road crashes. The single-most important cause of road crash deaths is speeding, the result of poor road safety education, especially among young drivers; and poorer enforcement of robust processes for driver training and issue of driver licences. Speeding accounts for 72% of all road crashes, 63% of road crash deaths, and 73% of road crash injuries in the country. The 2019 data for Karnataka shows speeding as the cause for over 9,000 deaths and 38,000 injuries. The second important cause of road crash deaths is riding without helmets, accounting for over 2,000 deaths in Karnataka.

This is the result of plain stupidity, especially when the pillion does not wear a helmet; or when the riders wear the helmet only for that stretch when they see the traffic police and then promptly remove it. Who are they really fooling but themselves, and with deadly consequences?

The third important cause of road crash deaths is driving without wearing seat belts, accounting for over 800 deaths in Karnataka. These three causes are closely followed, of course, by drunken driving, another irresponsible act of stupidity but with grave consequences to pedestrians and other commuters.

Our failure as citizens to respect the right to road safety, and worse still our apathy, was demonstrated when citizens vehemently protested the increase in fines for traffic violations, effected following the 2019 amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act that were aimed at more stringent regulation of traffic offenders and recalcitrant drivers, compelling the government to reduce the fines.

The need therefore is to focus on targeted road safety education programmes that foster behaviour change and engender in the general public road safety-seeking behaviour. In sum, a public crash course to save lives.

Towards this end, the Public Affairs Foundation, in collaboration with the Consumer Unity Trust Society, and with the cooperation of the enforcement agencies has initiated a series of multi-stakeholder awareness workshops in five cities in the state -- Bengaluru, Mysuru, Belagavi, Mangaluru and Kalaburagi -- to reach out in particular to young students, drivers of taxis, riders of two-wheelers, and local citizens; and initiate participatory action to make our roads safer. The focus of these workshops is to disseminate actionable knowledge that can influence safe road behaviour and promote a pedestrians-first road culture; robust driver licensing and testing procedure; follow the traffic-rules awareness; driver training and vehicle fitness certification process; and encourage the ‘golden hour’ Good Samaritan action.

This is but a beginning; much more needs to be done to save precious young lives. Such education should become part of the upbringing at home, school and college curricula, and a graduated driver licensing system. Together as citizens we can do it, and we must.

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru)