My way on every roadway!
Inability to enforce road safety laws renders them ineffective.
India's famed and acclaimed diversity is everywhere, in thought, word, and deed. We speak over 230 languages and dialects, eat many kinds of food cooked in myriad styles, dress, customs, worship, all in a variety of hues. This diversity, however, is most striking in locomotive forms with varying speeds on our roads. So bullock carts, horse-drawn carriages, cycle rickshaws, hand-pulled carts, motorised cycles, bicycles, piston-stroked three-wheelers of many shapes and sizes, motor cars from swank limousines to expanded trunks on wheels called Nano, minibuses to double-deckers, mini-trucks to container carriers, e-rickshaws, and lastly, those without any right to be on the roads: the pedestrians, all can be seen in the space of a couple of minutes competing for getting ahead in the race to wherever is their destination.
By law, India drives on the left but by usage and custom, we drive everywhere. By law, we have to overtake from the right, but by usage, we overtake from any side that gives us the scope to squeeze through. By law, we are advised to give way to the traffic on our right, by usage of our right we give way to nobody and dare the transgressor to assert his right of way for the least the offender will receive is a choice expletive in the local dialect. Notwithstanding these hazards, we continue to drive and going by the number of vehicles being added every other day, we are prepared to risk our lives, supremely confident that 'it' doesn't happen to us. Our road engineering does not know or believe in making safe roads--abysmal road direction, verges, intersections, and mindless speed breakers or unlit police barriers that raise the bar of traffic hazards.
A recent study by the Central Road Research Institute says that over 1500 people were killed in various accidents on Delhi roads in 2016. According to a report in one of the dailies, it has been said, "a large number of road projects in Delhi lack the safety norms". The quote goes on to say that, "Delhi has 33,000 km of road network. Out of which the arterial ways measure about 1,800 km of road length. These arterial routes accommodate nearly 80 per cent of Delhi's traffic, and thus proper road design and safety measures become very important". Sadly, their audits showed that these roads ignored all design and safety norms leaving road users highly vulnerable. This is not exactly a revelation to those who must undertake the hazardous journeys every day to make a living. The CRRI report finds most long stretches designed for non-stop traffic flow in the Capital have basic design flaws. Is there anything left to be said?
Our Parliament has enacted a new law almost as this is getting written, making traffic offences punishable with harsher laws. The Act stipulates that a state government can specify a multiplier of not less than one and not greater than ten, to be applied to each fine under the Motor Vehicles law. Significantly, it is proposed to create a National Register for Driving Licences and vehicle registration as well. It is hoped that the increased penalties will act as a deterrent against traffic violations. All these measures are aimed at halving the fatalities in road accidents in the next five years, from the present 1.5 lakh deaths per annum out of over half a million road accidents that happen. It is a game-changing law that needed to come into being.
If city driving is chaotic, the highways are equally unsafe. The variety in types of road users is plentiful. Again, our road designs and the way we drive, both contribute to the enhanced risks of being out there on the highway. For a start, there is little or no regulation of speed or parking. Anything goes, even though we have speed limit signage but these are largely decorative as there is no one to police the highway. Yes, some patrol cars are seen, now and then, but these are usually to escort some dignitary through the jurisdiction or conduct some specious paper checks and can easily be negotiated by the smart transporter. Besides, no rule of driving is observed by any variety of motorist. Ever since the highways got widened to three lanes, each way, all caution has been thrown to the winds and staying in any lane is a matter of passing convenience rather than a discipline to be adhered to as a faith. Almost everyone wants to occupy the right lane instead of leaving it for overtaking. And if you want to stop, by all means, do so on the side of the road, usually to answer the call of nature for yourself or your passengers, without warning of your intentions to other drivers. No wonder, we are prone to mindless accidents!
It is a fact that the volumes have increased hugely on highways as well as on our city roads. The callousness of all the road users has endangered lives, and some only because medical attention did not happen in time. Laws have always been there, but their non-observance made a mockery of the regime coupled with non-enforcement that made them look ineffective. To have a policeman at every cross-section is just not possible and even more impossible it is to have a policeman every inch of the way. And yet, to ensure certainty of punishment of every offender is the only way that our roads will become safer for travel. A behaviour change of national proportion is called for but who or what will trigger this superhuman conversion? It happens only through hard work, comprising total, and without exception enforcement, culminating in exemplary punishment. Our fine art of rule by exception is the cause of misgovernance. If only, we can let the law rule, the government's ambition to reduce accidents by half in five years can be achieved. This can be the unifying thread that our diversity of road users need and need it now. Or else, we will live in fond hope.
(The writer is a former Director, India Habitat Centre. Views expressed are strictly personal.)