Millennium Post

A car is a killing machine

I was watching a movie in the first floor of our house that fateful afternoon of ‘94 when that call came and changed our lives forever. It was my mother who had called from the ground floor of our house to inform me through her uncontrollable tears that she had just then received a call that my younger brother had died in a road accident. I rushed down hoping against hope that it was someone else. My dad was sure it wouldn’t be someone else – as I drove our car frantically towards Gurgaon where the accident had happened – and advised me to drive slowly. He had done his maximum possible to see to it that we never developed a fascination for motorbikes. An avid reader of about a dozen papers everyday, my father was definite that a motorbike was a sure-shot route to disaster on Indian roads. So the soonest he could, he bought a car for us. I still remember that day in 1993, after he had bought a fifth-hand 1977 model Toyota, he entered the house, lay down on the bed in a relaxed manner and told my grandmother, ‘I have put a kavach [a shield] around my children today.’ Unfortunately, that was not to be.

So, that afternoon, did my brother really let my father down by taking a ride on a two-wheeler from our institute’s campus to the highway to have lunch? No. It’s India’s pathetic road safety that let him down. We are a country of road killers. The highest number of road deaths in the world happens in India. While with only a mere 12 million vehicles, we have about 1,14,000 deaths on Indian roads, with about 250 million plus cars in the USA, they have only 41,000 road accident fatalities per year. That is, in India for every 100 cars we have one road death; while in the US, there’s one road death for every 5,000 cars! And this despite daily normal alcohol consumption per capita being far higher in the West, especially among the youth and average speed limits in developed nations being far higher than those in India. Can you fathom this, that as a nation, we lose $20 billion annually to road accidents, enough money to do away with 50 per cent of our country’s malnutrition problem?

Here is a look at what some countries plan for their citizens! A country like USA decided to take a target of reducing road deaths by 20 per cent in 10 years; for UK, the target taken was 40 per cent; Austria took 50 per cent; and even a country like Malaysia took a target of bringing road deaths down to less than three per 10,000 vehicles! What about India’s targets? Well, what’s that? UN’s global forecast shows road deaths becoming the third highest cause of premature deaths by the year 2020. In India, our future development initiatives need to have a focus on better road planning – from keeping roadsides clear of crashable objects [like trees, concrete pillars etc] to having separate lanes for pedestrians and cyclists to planning cities in such a manner where even the usage of vehicles can be restricted by making places of residence, schools, shopping and work closer to each other, wherein people start preferring even walking down; Denmark actually plans to make large portions of its capital Copenhagen car-free! We need new and extremely strict rules for obtaining licenses! Recognising the fact that the maximum number of road deaths are caused by young individuals in their first year of driving, many countries have rules preventing youths from driving alone during the first year of driving/driving from 10 pm to 5 am/driving with any alcohol trace – things we must adopt in India as well. Rules disallowing youth with fresh driving licenses in the first year to drive 125 cc or higher powered bikes are a must. It’s a shame that we haven’t been able to even make it compulsory for women to wear helmets.
All in all, the reason I write this piece is because road accidents are not only preventable but can be wiped out – a country like Sweden implemented something called Vision Zero in 1997, with an ultimate aim to bring down road accident deaths/severe injuries to zero! That’s called vision. And near-about that’s what is ultimately possible.

Yes, parents do have a role to play. When my dad bought me my first car, he explained to me endlessly that a car was like having a killing machine in your hands. I used to be rash once upon a time, and my brother the safe driver who my father would always praise. One day, perhaps out of slight jealousy at that comparison, I had asked my father, what if I were driving safely but someone jumped in front of my car? Then there would be an accident, wouldn’t there be? He had calmly replied, ‘A car is a killing machine. If your speed limit is right, you will even save that person from committing suicide.’ I remember that one lesson till this day.

Arindam Chaudhuri is a management guru and hony. Director of IIPM Think Tank
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