Verdict Corner: Saving lives with Good Samaritan norms

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Published: June 10, 2015 12:18:50 AM

Govt does well to shield bystanders helping accident victims from needless harassment

To improve road safety and address the fears that deter most from helping accident victims, the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) last week notified guidelines to shield Good Samaritans from long and complex legal processes, police harassment and detention at hospitals.

The guidelines hold that a Good Samaritan (bystander or an eyewitness to an accident) who brings an injured person to the hospital may leave immediately after furnishing her address. Disclosure of personal information has been made voluntary and the police can’t compel the person to share such details. The eyewitnesses will be examined only once, during the police investigation or during trial. Besides, the bystander will not have to appear in courts as provisions for videoconferencing can be made.

Such a person will not be liable under civil and criminal laws and any official attempting to intimidate her will face action. The new norms will be binding on all agencies, including the police, government departments and even private hospitals.

The ministry has issued the guidelines to comply with the Supreme Court’s order on a PIL filed by SaveLIFE Foundation, a NGO working to improve road safety and emergency care in India, where every 60 minutes, 15 persons die in traffic accidents—the highest such mortality globally.

Welcoming the government’s move, Piyush Tewari, founder of SaveLIFE Foundation, says that “although an interim measure, these guidelines will help create a supportive environment for bystanders to come forward and help injured persons without fear of intimidation or harassment by police and hospitals. The onus is now on state governments to ensure implementation of these guidelines.”

The guidelines had became necessary after a 2013 survey conducted in seven cities—Delhi, Hyderabad, Kanpur, Mumbai, Indore, Ludhiana and Kolkata—by the NGO showed that 74% bystanders are unlikely to come forward to help a seriously injured person on the road. While 88% of bystanders cited legal hassles like police questioning and court appearances as a deterring factor, 77% of those unlikely to assist said lack of cooperation from hospitals is also a reason.

“Annual social loss due to these accidents is 3% of GDP. Timely help can save about 50% of the lives. If proper medical care is provided to victims within an hour after the accident, the chances of victims’ survival will be the highest,” says former Delhi High Court judge VS Agarwal, in a report compiled by the Supreme Court-appointed panel on framing guidelines for the protection of Good Samaritans that he headed.

Even the Law Commission, in its 234th report—submitted to the government in August 2009—said that more than 100,000 Indians die each year in road accidents and more than a million are injured or maimed. Citing another study, it said that road accidents cost the country some Rs 550 billion every year. India’s share in world fatalities is increasing. The road network in India makes 12% of the total global network while the country’s share of global road injury is a high 5.4%.

Unlike countries such as France, where there is an obligation on a person to provide assistance to an injured party, with guaranteed protection against harassment, there is no such law in India. However, some states, including Delhi, have issued advisories to hospitals and the police directing them not to harass a Good Samaritan.

According to Supreme Court advocate DL Chidanand, the guidelines, expected to allay the fears of bystanders in an accident and enable them to save lives, will go a long way in providing immediate medical attention to victims within the critical first-hour of the accident.

However, legal experts feel that the guidelines will remain merely a token unless they are enforced under a law.

“Mere guidelines are not effective. They should be part of the statute which govern the establishment of hospitals and nursing homes. Only then can they be effectively enforced. As of now, the agencies, including the hospitals, do not honour the SC order,” Chidanand notes.

A blend of proper enforcement with the Good Samaritan guidelines can ensure that hundreds of preventable deaths on the roads are avoided.

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