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For safer roads

There is a need to implement more stringent laws around road safety to reduce accidents by taking various stakeholders into account

For safer roads
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Though the flash flood in Tapovan in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district pervades our mind and needs a lot of rescue work and investigation, the road accident on January 20, near Jalpaiguri in Bengal was equally horrific. There is a fundamental flaw in the application of rules and regulations in both cases, be it in connection to environmental degradation or unregulated infrastructure development.

The road accident snuffed out the life of 14 people and left another 18 badly injured. It was the result of a head-on collision on a foggy night between a fully loaded speeding truck with stone boulders and a few small cars that were taking the easy route of being on the wrong side of a four-lane highway. The accident was surely avoidable.

Hundreds of cases of wrong side driving on roads have emerged in Gurugram NCR in the last month. Close to 40,000 cases were reported in this area in the previous year. This is largely the result of unplanned and haphazard development, a scene to be seen all over the country. Here, the police charge a fine of mere Rs 500. Heavy fines should immediately be imposed all over the country to get rid of this scourge. This is a mindset, which needs to be changed urgently and it is the responsibility of highway designers and road developers to be mindful of periodic underpasses and traffic alert signs, especially, while restructuring internal roads. This additional cost has to be included in the overall project cost and is not above the cost of human lives.

Driving on the wrong side of roads claimed 9,200 lives in 2019 with more than one-fourth of such fatalities (2,726) occurring on national highways. It was the second biggest reason for deaths on high-speed roads.

Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways, VK Singh has earlier remarked that around 71 per cent of 4.49 lakh road accidents in India in 2019 were due to over speeding. India accounts for about five lakh road accidents annually. This is highest in the world where about 1.5 lakh people die and another three lakh become crippled.

It is observed that the main causes of road accidents in India are, on one hand, a shortcoming in road design, lack of proper road markings and absence of 24x7 working traffic lights. On the other hand, it is utter callousness and casual driving attitude — rather a negation of strictly following traffic rules and road safety precautions. This is a result of the easy accessibility of driving licences in non-metro cities.

Of those seeking licences, many are little educated, without formal training in the art of driving and hardly conversant with road sense and traffic laws. Yet there are others, who are young, brash and believe that they have connections which allow them to break laws.

Moreover, for many, at least those who have been driving for a while on inter-state routes, change in vehicle technology and newly added digital features make little sense. Driving is essentially sitting behind a wheel for many people with a road ahead.

The regional transport offices must fully be working online in coordination with Central and state authorities so that a nation-wide data of those being issued a driving licence can be maintained. It should also include driving trespasses and crimes committed by people over a period of time. These acts of omission could well include jumping of traffic lights, not wearing the seat belt or a helmet, not using indicators when changing lanes, driving under the influence of liquor, over speeding and driving recklessly — particularly on the highways.

Let us not forget the fact that truck drivers especially have a hard task of driving long distances for long hours under stressful conditions. Therefore roads and other infrastructure should be so designed, built and regulated that there are periodic facilities for vehicle repair/maintenance, cheap motels and restrooms on the highways. Soon there will have to be an interface between road and rail freight corridors and a slow change to electric vehicles.

Driving a vehicle has now to be treated seriously as a developed art, which requires a tough pre-licence skills clearance process. It should include knowledge of traffic laws and rules in traffic management — both in rural and semi-urban environments — as well as the complexities of densely inhabited areas, where movement during peak hours and parking of delivery trucks and motor cars are a serious challenge.

Speeding, however, continues to be the biggest reason for fatal crashes. In 2019, such fatalities increased to 1.02 lakh compared to 97,588 in 2018.

Nearly 30 per cent of the total of 1.5 lakh deaths in road accidents in 2019 were simply due to not wearing helmets. Of the 56,136 two-wheeler riders who were killed last year, 44,666 were found riding without helmets. Use of social media is needed to reinforce the message of essential helmet wearing. Uttar Pradesh topped the list of states in this category with 7,069 deaths, followed by Maharashtra (5,328) and Madhya Pradesh (3,813).

Another 16 per cent of fatalities were on account of not wearing seatbelts. A total of 20,885 persons lost their lives in 2019 due to this, which was 14.5 per cent less than in 2018.

Use of mobile phones while driving caused a sharp rise in fatalities in road fatalities accidents. It was up by nearly 33 per cent in 2019 as compared to 2018. This is the maximum rise in deaths in percentage terms among all types of violations.

In 2020, the Government launched a Central accident database management system, known as the Integrated Road Accident Database, that was to help in analysing causes of road crashes and in devising safety measures to reduce such accidents in the country. In this endeavour, the Government proposes to open 1,000 driving schools in the country. This is where the motor vehicle industry has to chip in.

All heavy and light vehicle manufacturers should feel obligated to join hands — as well as create a consolidated fund — to seriously educate and test the skills of those seeking new driving licences or those graduating to their more complex vehicles. This should be in addition to the efforts of the licencing authorities.

Manufacturers are constantly upgrading their products by incorporating the latest technologies and safety features as a marketing and sales pitch. They should be held responsible to correspondingly participate with the authorities, including traffic police, in every region of their market to improve the driving and general awareness of the clients who invest in these vehicles. This can seriously be done and with good results — through simulators in case of heavy vehicles and audio-visual presentations in case of light vehicles.

Now that new cities are being planned and new areas will require accessibility, the cooperation of the vehicle industry as a proactive participant in development should be forthcoming. They should become the new stakeholders. Special efforts should be made by the industry — to plan educational and refresher forums for school children, town planning authorities, their own bulk clients, users as buyers in large residential and commercial areas and civic authorities — to introduce them to the latest technology in world-class traffic management and driving skills.

In the case of aircraft manufacturers, the airline pilots are required to periodically upgrade their knowledge and skills with regard to changing technology in aircrafts and facilities at airports.

On the ground, It is the man or woman behind the wheel that ultimately matters. Exposures to simulated relearning processes should become a mandatory learning exercise. There should be a mid-course correction for all licence holders every few years or so.

The laws in the developed countries are very strict with regard to the responsibilities and obligations of the driving licence holder, who must strictly adhere to safe driving procedures and fine is heavy even for the slightest lapses.

As an organised society, we have to be collectively proactive about simple factors of road safety such as total avoidance of mobile phones while driving, strict lane driving, use of indicators for changing lanes or overtaking, use of flashing yellow lights in case of an emergency or a brief halt.

There is Equal obligation on the authorities for the surety of safe driving. Roads must be properly marked and lit, road signs properly displayed, entry and exit points at a specific distance for manoeuvring, traffic lights working at all times, vehicle load and speed limits specified. Also, no parking zones or zero tolerance areas must be well defined, honking or throwing litter on the road be made an offence and first aid be made available as roadside assistance. Presently, wearing a mask is a must.

Discipline and driving within rules and laws can only be successful when the above issues are religiously put in place. The laws and rules are made for the public's own safety.

The writer is Chief Producer, News & Current Affairs, Doordarshan. Views expressed are personal

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