Road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari was refreshingly candid when he said at a media event on Wednesday that he “tried his best but could not succeed” on road safety. The minister’s admission will, however, be cold comfort for a country, which probably has the worst road safety record in the world.
India, which has only 1% of global motor vehicles, accounts for over 10% of all road traffic deaths globally. Around 150,000 people lose their lives on Indian roads every year. It’s inexplicable why a minister who has the distinction of setting a record on the pace of road construction failed to put more focus on the safety aspect. Faulty road design, which seems to have played a big role in the car crash that killed former Tata Group chairman Cyrus Mistry, is a problem that Gadkari has highlighted on many occasions in the past. Besides, the minister has been talking about bad designing of road junctions and inadequate signages and markings as some of the main causes of road accidents in India. Earlier this week, he also faulted shoddy detailed project reports (DPRs), a mandatory requirement for infrastructure projects laying down particulars of design, engineering and technology use proposed. It is therefore shocking that the government has moved so slowly on setting this right.
Gadkari perhaps needs to rethink his endorsement of higher speed limits for cars on highways and expressways in light of the poor state of Indian roads. This will be debated at the meeting of the Transport Development Council that begins in Bengaluru today, and the existing realities, hopefully, should inform the outcome. Given the climate footprint of fossil-fuel burnt in high-speed roads, India must take a cue from Germany, which is currently debating lowering the speed caps on its famous autobahn. As the country develops faster and better highways, commensurate systems must be deployed for high-speed corridors. Poor awareness among drivers and passengers, as also the failure of auto companies to put ‘safety first’ is the other part of the problem. Failure to wear seat-belts accounted for over 15,000 deaths in 2020, despite the Central Motor Vehicle Rules of prescribing penalties for rear passengers not wearing seat-belts. So, the minister’s statement that the government will soon notify strict penalties for any passenger not wearing seat-belt and mandate seat-belt alarms for all seats is a good step towards forcing corrective behaviour among the masses. After all, youth (18-34 years) account for 65% of people killed in road accidents.
The goal of reducing incidence and fatality of road accidents in the country by 50% by 2024 can’t be met without greater awareness and safer road-travel behaviour among youngsters. Despite the government having mandated several curbs on unsafe behaviour such as riding without seat-belts/helmets, speeding, driving under influence, and reckless driving, these continue to be flouted with impunity. There is perhaps a case for the government making some of the punitive measures more stringent and states enforcing road safety rules effectively. Auto companies, too, need to step up their act, and make passenger safety a priority, irrespective of what the market demands are. Gadkari was right in questioning car-makers on why they have six airbags, a standard safety feature, for the cars they export, but fit just four in most models sold in the domestic market. If the cars at the lower end become costlier, so be it, as safety must come first before everything else.