Where Are The Road Safety Reforms?


Ever been stuck in a traffic jam on a long flyover? It can be one of the most heartless, lonely and despairing aspects of urban living. Lifted above the human concourse down below—in a flat, treeless ribbon of asphalt—you have nothing but stilled battalions of fuming, grinding metal ahead of you. It’s also a most ironical thing: why should movement halt at all on an elevated road built especially so that we can glide seamlessly? Next, imagine the jam easing. You step on the gas to make up for lost time, to reach that 12.30 meeting, on the empty stretch afterward…and suddenly there looms into view the dreaded white-and-blue posse! For a lot of India, they always shared some traits with highway robbers. And now, a challan can mean the better part of your month’s salary. No wonder a drunken sod in Delhi preferred to set his mobike on fire rather than pay Rs 25,000.

Traffic, like the truth, involves us all. We experience it as a quotidian, everyday activity. But roads and mobility are much more than that. They’re intimately connected to growth. It’s the very blood of our economic life that courses through those arterial roads. Traffic reform, therefore, is a vital need: not the least because an estimated Rs 60,000 crore is lost annually in just Delhi in terms of fuel wasted in congested traffic and sundry other ways, an IIT study revealed in 2017. Imagine a national figure, tossing in ‘traffic capital’ Bangalore, the north-south tunnel mess of Bombay, and everything else.

There’s also the human toll. India is among the world’s top rankers in road deaths—2017 saw 4.65 lakh accidents that killed 1.5 lakh people! (Another 4.7 lakh were inj­ured.) This translates into 405 deaths and 1,290 injuries each day from 1,274 accidents—16 people are killed and 53 are inj­ured every hour on Indian roads. That’s the official count; a fair number likely goes unreported. It’s in this near-anarchic situation that the government has come out with the Motor Vehicle Act, 2019, updating a 1988 law. Touted as a ‘surgical strike’ to enforce traffic discipline, the astronomical fines it proposes have hit headlines everywhere—not to mention, let loose a kind of terror among the public across the country.

A Forked Road

Will it work? Opinion is divided. Many officials affirm that a strongly punitive regime is the only way to drum some sense into habitually rule-breaking Indians, and indeed fresh data reveals a sudden spike in helmet sales and insurance applications (over 60 per cent of India’s vehicles are uninsured), as also long queues at pollution-testing centres! But sceptics abound too. Leading road safety expert Dinesh Mohan cites world data to show a penal approach can actually be counter-productive (see A Tearful Penny Lane)—and catches the problem from the wrong end. Other experts, too, say fines ought to be last on the bucket list of constructive measures—they target the weakest link, leaving every infrastructural aspect unaddressed.

Harman Singh Sidhu, who floated an NGO called ArriveSAFE in 2005, was left severely paralysed in a road accident in 1996. He has since travelled on roads in over 10 countries, including developing countries like Brazil and Turkey. There is indeed a visible difference in traffic discipline and road user behaviour everywhere compared to India, he says. “But is it just because they have higher fines? Not so. The road environment guides you and most drivers naturally end up following the rules,” he says. “The focus should be on saving lives, which is possible only if we have a holistic approach, not just challaning drivers.”

In an anti-drunken driving project between US-based Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and the Rajasthan Police, researchers found that India needed a specialised/dedicated highway force for robust enforcement. The study said that rotating sobriety checkpoints to surprise locations by the Rajasthan traffic police was much more effective than placing them in a single location— rotating checkpoints reduced night accidents by 17 per cent and night deaths by 25 per cent.

So what does the MV Act 2019 have? Markedly more stringent penal provisions for traffic offenders, especially those guilty of high-risk offences such as drunken and dangerous driving, overloading, non-adherence to safety norms such as use of seat belts and helmets, new provisions to tackle juvenile driving, new norms covering pillion riders and children in a vehicle (see graphic). It’s exemplary punishment: offences committed by enforcing authority personnel will invite twice the penalty. And states have been granted special powers to increase penalties for compoundable offences by notifying a multiplier between 1 and 10 for each fine already prescribed. Nitin Gadkari, seen as a ‘doer-minister’ within the Modi cabinet and in-charge of road transport and highways, says a consultative process preceded the legislation and is sanguine about the effect it will have (see interview). Indeed, the traffic jam right now seems to be outside RTO offices: Odisha had to open more counters and stay open even on Sundays to cope with the sudden rush!

Gadkari’s optimism notwithstanding, a general unease and lack of political consensus was soon visible. BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh has implemented it, but is thinking of softening the provisions, like Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Jharkhand. The long list of refusers include West Bengal, Himachal, MP, Chhattisgarh, Kerala…. Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik has directed cops to go easy on violators for three months, while appealing to people to get all their documents ready. Punjab, Delhi and Rajasthan are yet to decide.

Take the Metro Today

Some good spinoffs are already being reported. B.R. Ravikanthe Gowda, JCP (Traffic) of Bangalore, points to a surprising development in his city: public transport ridership has increased! “Commuters on BMC buses have increased by around 6.52 per cent. People have become so careful that, if they don’t have insurance, head gear, proper documents, they are opting for the public transport that’s available at their doorstep.” he says. “It’s having a positive effect. It’s those who were flouting rules and getting away with paying nominal amounts who are angry and protesting.”

Similar reports are coming in from elsewhere. Says a senior government official, “As per the state reports, the fear of heavy fines has introduced a sense of fear and, hence, induced responsible behaviour.” Adds Pankaj Kumar Singh, ADG (Traffic), Rajasthan: “By and large, it’s youngsters who break rules. Rs 5,000-10,000 is a very big amount for them. Anyway, who is asking people to pay fines? Just abide by the rules.” Rajasthan, of course, is still dithering on the law.

The scare was amplified by some incidents fated to hit the headlines. There was Delhi’s mobike-burning man, a truck in Sambalpur was fined Rs 86,000 (later settled at Rs 70,000), and an auto driver in Bhubaneswar was slapped a cumulative Rs 46,500 for a host of violations, including drunken driving. Road ministry data shows Odisha issued 4,080 challans between September 1-4, collected Rs 88.90 lakh in fines and impounded 46 vehicles. Haryana managed Rs 52.3 lakh by issuing just 343 challans in those four days. Annual collections at this rate can probably recapitalise a few public sector banks.

Some call for a graded approach. K.K. Kapila, president emeritus of the Washington-based International Road Federation, says they had suggested a gradual increase in fines to the Union government. “The amendments can’t be faulted. But care should be taken that fines are imposed gradually. If the increase range is from Rs 100 to Rs 1,000, the first year it should be Rs 250, then Rs 500, and the third year Rs 1,000.” Supreme Court lawyer and road safety crusader Arun Mohan agrees. “To educate violators, we suggest that traffic police should carry self-inking rubber stamps in green, red and orange with road safety messages and warnings on the challan copy. For example, a helmetless rider will have stamped on his challan a message like: ‘100 two-wheeler riders met with accidents wearing helmets. Only 5 died and 15 were injured. Hundred two-wheeler riders without helmets met with accidents: 50 died, 25 were injured’,” he says.

Some officials are on the same page. Says Divya Charan Rao, DCP (Traffic), Hyderabad: “We do understand people’s pain. True, the new laws are meant to increase road safety. People, if counselled properly, may as well toe the line. But not by shock treatment.” But a senior road ministry official says: “The old law was in place for last 30 years but did no good. Whether we accept it or not, hefty fines are the only way to induce discipline. Safety drives have been going on for years, but accident figures show no significant decline.”

The Bobby on the Kerb

What about corruption? Aren’t traffic cops somewhat infamous for harassment and bribery? A Delhi traffic cop concedes, “It could be true, but only sometimes. Like all professions, even traffic police has some people who could be taking advantage. We will have to make our work more transparent.” He cites states that have started using IT to reduce traffic police-public interface. For example: Delhi is installing cameras for light violations and over-speeding, the challan is sent to the vehicle owner at his address or through email or SMS. “You have footage as evidence,” he says. Bangalore is following suit.

Says Rajasthan’s ADG (Traffic) Singh: “I wouldn’t say the Act has given teeth to traffic police, but the teeth have become sharper. Today, your license can get suspended for three months under 12-13 clauses, earlier there were only five specific violations for which licenses could be suspended.” Linking your license to your driving habits, as also your ability to get loans, is very normal abroad, he adds.

Singh also suggests IT-enabled reforms. “Today, you can pay through card or the POS machine even at the smallest kirana shop. Why don’t traffic police start a system where fines are paid only through POS, card or UPI or BHIM? The message should be put out that the police department is not to be paid in cash. You can have a portal. We’ll have to change our way to show we’re more transparent, credible and reliable.” Traffic police officials across states told Outlook they were in favour of weeding out cash transactions.

What About the Etc Etc?

Road accidents are a result of combination of factors such as human error, road defects, manufacturing defects in vehicles and worsening traffic congestion. V.S. Suresh, a lawyer specialising in motor accidents, wonders how the government can improve safety when there are no proper facilities to learn driving. “Even RTOs do not have proper testing tracks. They conduct driving tests on busy roads,” he points out. The road ministry official counters, “Reforms are under way. Several states have adopted online testing for issuing of licenses. Besides, you can carry e-documents, they will be deemed valid. Also, a centralised system for registration and licences will be set up.” However, he confesses the RTO lobby is so strong that they thwart reforms.

Activists point to another skew: the MV Act contains nearly 70 amendments, but only around 10 relating to increased penalties got implemented. There is no mention of a plan or timeline for the others—such as cashless treatment of accident victims during the ‘golden hour’ (the hour following a traumatic injury, when medical care has the best chance of preventing death); a national road safety board; a national transportation policy. Committees are still being formed.

We are at the fag end of the UN global plan for the decade of action on road safety (2011–2020). A consortium of the UN, WHO and World Bank et al have studied safety solutions in different countries, evaluated them and developed a knowledge pool of best practices. Experts say India should have followed these instead of trying to address a complex problem by pulling just one thread: a punitive regime.

Mridul Bhasin, a Jaipur resident who started the NGO Muskaan to create road safety awareness after she lost her 16-year-old daughter in an accident, says a plethora of reform measures are possible, including the use of IT, no-contact challan, and training police on soft skills.

“Looking at the capacity of our agencies and the kind of IT we use, this law is very difficult to implement,” Bhasin says. “In other countries,  training facilities and license systems are stringent and they use no-contact challans.”

Navdeep Asija, an advisor to the Punjab government on road safety, says higher fines widen the gap between the police and public and will undo the progress made towards community policing. He cites the case of Netherlands, and says: “As an isolated measure, heavier penalties have little effect. But frequently conducted random checks, done very visibly, do reduce violations.” India has a paltry 5:20,000 ratio of traffic cops to vehicles—on an average, a vehicle is challaned once in four or five years. “Frequent fines, even Rs 100, are more of a deterrent than a bigger fine of Rs 5,000 once in five years,” Asija says.

Kulanthayan K.C. Mani, associate professor at Universiti Putra Malaysia, too favours increasing enforcement, both manually and electronically, with existing traffic rules—to increase the probability of being seen violating rules. “Once the probability of being seen goes up, road users change their behaviour: they know they are being watched,” Mani says. An executive director with Safe Kids Malaysia, Mani adds, “The next stage is the probability of being stopped, the last is being penalised. That’s the full enforcement cycle.” The idea is, if the first is high, the latter two drop anyway—a virtuous cycle.

Another serious flaw: not looking at road design and, instead, hitting at the weakest link. Road construction norms are a scream in India, but only if someone dies on account of a bad road does the law look at the other side—imposing a fine of Rs 1 lakh on the contractor or the consultant. Manoj Wadhwa, a Faridabad resident, lived through a tragic shock. His bike got into a pothole, causing the instant death of his 3-year-old son and severely injuring his wife. He has since fought a long battle to get companies like L&T and DA Toll Road Pvt Ltd implicated in a criminal case. Says Wadhwa, “Any potholes, flaw in road design, poor maintenance, use of poor material for roads, defunct traffic signals…all of that should be fined. Repeat offenders must be punished. Not after it leads to someone’s death, much before that.” He wonders why government officials and contractors are not jailed for dereliction of duty. “Only penalising drivers harshly will create discontentment,” Wadhwa says.

To be fair, some of the ‘political’ criticism—West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee termed the new law “very harsh”—is a bit surprising. The law was indeed preceded by a consultation with state transport ministers, after an empowered committee was formed in February 2016 under then Rajasthan transport minister Yunus Khan. At three meetings where all state transport ministers were invited, only 18-20 ministers turned up. Instead of raising their concerns then, states are reacting post facto. Even Gujarat has slashed all fines by 50 per cent.

Transportation is a state subject, so states have the right to mould the MV Act 2019 in their own ways. But how exactly does a universal thing like traffic allow for regional differences? Perhaps it’s not traffic behaviour, but the perspective on what the best solution is that differs. Our goal should be universal, though. As a signatory to the Brasilia Declaration, India is committed to reducing the number of road accidents and fatalities by 50 per cent by 2020. No one can criticise that.

Vehicles And  People On Roads

  • 22.60 crore Total Vehicles Registered
  • 1.41 crore Vehicles Registered in 2019
  • 8.9 crore Total Driving Licenses Issued
  • 46.94 lakh Driving Licenses Issued in 2019

Disclaimer :- This post is independently published by the author. Infeed neither backs nor assumes liability for the opinions put forth by the author.

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