01 Dec 2023  |   05:00am IST

The devil on our roads!

Binayak Datta

The wake-up call last month came from the ‘Road Accidents in India – 2022’ report of the Union Government. Not the numbers only, but also the alarming rates of increase of road accidents countrywide, are real-real scary!

Key findings: The key findings contained in the report compiled from information received from the States’ by the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways are as follows -The total number of road accidents during the calendar-year 2022 was 4.61 lakh (up 12% over its previous year (1,300 a day!). The fatalities were 1.68 lakh (up 9.4%) and injuries were 4.43 lakh (up 15.3%)! Of this, over-speeding caused 72% of total road accidents; 71% of fatalities and 73% of injuries.

Driving wrong-side caused 5% of total road accidents and 5% of fatalities.

Using Cell-Phones while driving caused 1.6% of total road accidents; 2% of fatalities and 1.4% of injuries. Drunken driving caused 2.2% of total road accidents; 2.5% of fatalities and 2% of injuries.

67% of accidents occurred where the road was straight. 74% of accidents happened on clear-weather days. 45% of accidents happened involving two-wheelers. 

The highest fatality rates were in Sikkim is 17 of 10,000 vehicles registered in the State while the All-India rate is 5.2 and Goa stands at 1.9. About 56% of all these accidents occurred on State and National Highways. Young adults (18 to 45years) account for 67% of these accidents and 68% happened in rural areas! Although not specifically mentioned, in my view, two major contributories to accidents are, poor quality and pot-holed roads built with inadequate study and of course, stray animals, particularly for two wheelers. I wonder what the tally was here!

My take: Important readings from these numbers: 1) Road accidents and fatalities rise unbridled year after year notwithstanding new laws and newer penalties. 2) Youth and two-wheelers are more prone to accidents and they most often endanger other innocent lives as well! 3) Rural areas are more dangerous, may be more difficult reach, during the ‘golden-hours’! 4) Drowsy-driver comes back again and again, look at the straight-roads and fair-weather numbers.

All this point out to: a) Writing new laws, or court-orders and printing penalties are obviously not working, it’s hard-core implementation that’s important; b) Populistic response to lobbying should be shunned; eg: the seven-year-old Supreme Court Order banning sale of liquor within 500 meters of a highway from where the shop should not be even visible. State governments country-wide apparently gave into lobbying and the ‘500’metres was reduced to 220 metres so as to continue-with-existing-licensed-shops, (can’t guess whether accidents, would wait for expiry of licenses of road-side liquor shops)!

Just for bench-marks, the OECD in its report “Road Accidents” 2023 shows clearly, road accidents are in fact, on the decline over last 10 years in all top-level OECD countries (excepting the US), by around 2 to 3 points each (the best being Belgium)! So, it’s proved, we need to improve drastically! 

One reputed national daily quoted, the World Bank findings and underlined that road crashes cost the Indian economy 3 to 5 percent of GDP each year. Everyone killed, injured, or disabled by a road-traffic crash has a network of others, including family and friends, who are deeply affected and it’s difficult to attach a precise value to each case of personal loss and suffering and produce a figure that encapsulates the global social cost of road crashes and injuries. Many families are driven deeply into poverty by the loss of breadwinners in consequence.

My prescriptions: India has a road density of 1,963 per 1000sqkm of land-area, reasonably good by all standards, but what I missed is the density of vehicles per kilometre of road.  Albeit, steps might have been taken both globally and nationally in areas of enhancement of road safety like mandatory air-bags, improved road design, the new motor vehicle laws and penalties and putting in place the new Electronic Monitoring and Enforcement of Road Safety Rules 2019, sorrowfully though, pay-backs are still awaited.

Globally, the ‘Brasilia Declaration on Road Safety 2015’ was signed (to which India is a signatory), similarly the UNGA resolution, aligned with the Stockholm Declaration 2021, that efforts be made by all members so that, road fatalities be halved by 2030, also putting in place an “International Road Assessment Programme”, (the iRAP), we in India are waiting to see results.  

Jingoes might sound great, but I think deeper public communication, somewhat like the Jandhan Yojana, or the Swachh Bharat Mission is necessary. Callousness of the youth is rife. I happened to rebuke a youngster driving our bus (in another State, we were visiting), when he was driving whilst on his phone, with phone on one hand and the left-hand nimbly shuttling between the steering wheel and the gear-shift, flashing a casual smile the fellow soothes me “Sir, sab-hi chalti hai”!, I remember I did give him a piece of my mind, but think of the level of public awareness, the youngster doesn’t even realise 33 lives inside the bus and countless on the roads and the pavements are under the responsibility of that nimble hand-on-the-wheel!   

The other veritable threats are children of the rich speeding on expensive sports bikes in front of girls’ colleges, and the high-decibel rev-sound which seemingly thrills them, but apart from the extreme noise pollution they entail, do they realise possible consequences?

I think the speed-camera and the dash-board camera be made mandatory. 

Non-usage of passenger and rear seatbelts should be keenly checked by the traffic police, a grim lesson from the crash of Cyrus Mistry’s car last year. There can be absolutely, no compromise on road-quality and stray animals.

Finally, we seem to have too many vehicles on too less and too narrow roads. Can’t we exercise a Singapore-like control on purchase of new cars and provide excellent public transport?

And before I part, it’s prioritisation, communication, awareness and enforcement which can save 4.6 lakh precious healthy lives and unquantified vast number of families a year, from death and financial distress. What’s holding us back?

(Binayak Datta is a finance professional)


Iddhar Udhar