Thinking about road accidents reminds me of a childhood mishap in which a six-year old school boy was crushed to death right in front of our school by a speeding DTC bus. As the news spread, a pal of gloom descended on the entire school and neighborhood from where the child hailed. Over-speeding on that particular road, which I still frequently take, is not possible anymore due to traffic congestion but it turns out that over-speeding is the single most factor in India responsible for road accidents—accounting for 48% of total road accidents in which nearly 5 lakh persons get injured and 1.5 lakh persons die every year. Further, nearly 47% of road deaths are of pedestrians, cyclists and riders of 2-or 3-wheelers, who are vulnerable when they share the road with unregulated motorised traffic. These facts and features are similar to what is observed in many other developing countries.
India’s share in road accident deaths worldwide (around 12%) is not entirely out of line with its share in total vehicles worldwide (around 14%). When we’re expecting India to be the fastest growing major economy in the world, we should also be expect a fast growth of motorisation as well. The expected surge in motorisation, if unaccompanied by tightening of road safety measures, will only increase the risk of road accident injuries and deaths.
Last week, the cabinet approved Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Bill 2016 proposing a steep hike in fine for several types of traffic violations/offences: five times increase in the fine for drunken driving, 10-fold increase in driving without a seat belt, 10 time increase if driving without licence and so forth. Improving road safety legislation is one thing but its enforcement is quite another.
When it comes to enforcement of various road safety measures, India doesn’t score high on the WHO’s scale of 0 to 10 where 0 means “not effective” and 10 means “highly effective. For instance, on enforcement of national speed limit laws India is rated 3 and only marginally higher—rating of 4—on enforcement of national laws on drunk-driving, motorcycle helmet, and seat belt. Any regulation is only as good as its enforcement. If the probability of getting caught is low, increasing penalties will hardly dissuade violators. And improving enforcement is as much a matter of resources (finance, personnel, infrastructure and technology) as of coordination among different levels of government as well as with the civil society.
Besides imposing heavy fines, making our cities safer calls for a comprehensive approach which has to do with the way we design of our cities as well as our public transport system, shape our transport policy that promotes certain modes of transport over others, carry out awareness campaigns, zoning strategies and so forth. Some of these strategies, such as design of cities and public transport system, can only be pursued over medium to longer term, while others such as zoning of areas can be achieved in relatively shorter period. Indian cities that are participating in the union government’s smart city mission will hopefully be able to implement their proposed innovative approaches to city mobility, for instance, creating pedestrian zones, promoting cycling, bike sharing, e-rickshaws as well as strengthening public transport system.
India can certainly learn from experience of other countries. South Korea is hailed as one of the best examples of improving road safety for children as it achieved a sharp reduction in children (14 year old or below) killed every year in road accidents from around 1,575 in 1992 to 55 in 2014. It could achieve this through a combination of strategies, of course, but what stands out is a strict enforcement of rules in the so-called “school zones”—a 300-meter area around schools.
In these “school zones” speed limit is strictly defined and enforced, and civic organisations comprising parents of elementary school children play an important role in promotion of road safety around these zones. In contrast, the Netherlands achieved road safety for their children by promoting cycling to school. Almost all Dutch children ride bicycle to school which is not only safer but also a healthier option.
Often, a comprehensive solution means taking a series of discreet steps that gets one closer to tackling the issue at hand. The Bill which proposes, among other things, a steep hike in penalties for traffic rules violations/offences is one such discreet but important step.
This week, as the Indian parliament takes up the passage of the Bill, one hopes that policy makers will not lose sight of comprehensive solution that India needs to achieve 50% reduction in number of road accidents and fatalities by 2020—to which it is committed as a signatory to the Brasilia Declaration.
The author is a development economist, formerly with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and World Bank