India continues to grapple with the problem of road safety with the highest number of fatalities in the world, about 1.6 lakh every year. Back in 2015, as part of the UN decade of action for Road Safety, we had pledged to reduce the number of road deaths by the year 2020. However, all these years we continued to make piecemeal efforts on removal of black/grey spots, school education and trauma care training in isolation.
Even after years of dealing with road deaths, injuries, and accidents, we still do not have any data regarding analysis of detailed causes of accidents/fatalities. Whatever data is available, unfortunately we chose to ignore it. The tough part of enforcement of the existing regulations does not seem to be in the action plan or focus. The result: target to reduce road fatalities continues to be a mirage. Data from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways of 2020 shows that more than 64 per cent of road fatalities happen with the Vulnerable Road Users (VRUs = Pedestrians + Bicyclists + 2-Wheelers). The same data also shows that the VRU’s share in the fatalities has been on a constant rise over the past five years.
VRUs’ share in road fatalities moved from 47 per cent in 2016 to 49 per cent in 2017, 55 per cent in 2018 and 57 per cent in 2019. On the contrary, car occupant fatalities have constantly declined, from 18 per cent in 2016 to 13.6 per cent in 2020. In fact, in Delhi, India’s high vehicle density capital, VRU fatalities account for a whopping 89 per cent, while fatalities of car inmates are about 5 per cent.
Contrastingly, while cars have been mandated with ten different safety regulations in the last two years, we hardly have any strong regulatory measure focused to reduce VRU fatalities Thanks to Government efforts, India today stands at par with Europe for most crash regulations but lacks significantly on enforcement when compared to the world. As per a WHO report of 2018, India ranks 3 to 4 (on a scale of 10) on most of the enforcement parameters such as helmets, seat belts, drunken driving and over speeding. This contrasts with a much higher score of 9 to 10 for enforcement in most of the developed world.
Ironically, we benchmark the same countries when we draft regulations for road safety but ignore them for benchmarking on enforcement. Hence, it is no surprise that nearly a decade after our pledge, the road fatalities in India continue to rise. Last year it rose to about 1.65 lakh deaths. Let us also look at another critical data point to assess causes of fatalities.
According to MoRTH data, in 70 per cent of the 2-wheeler accident deaths, victims were found not to be wearing helmets; and in 87 per cent of the car accident deaths, victims were found not to be wearing seat belts. The recent move by Ministry of Road Transport and Highways to make six airbags mandatory in every car as an improved safety measure has its own shortcomings as the recent example of late Cyrus Mistry indicates. The car had seven airbags, but still could not save the life as the seat belt was not worn. In a crash, seat belts are the primary restraint devices whereas airbags provide supplemental support. Several global studies have shown that if an airbag deploys without the seat belt being worn, it can cause severe injuries and even death.
Sadly, the data in India shows that more than 70 per cent of front seat occupants do not use seat belts while 96 per cent do not wear rear seat belts. Another big problem is that we the people of India have our own unique ways of bypassing the law. No matter what devices or sensors or alarms such as seat belt reminders are mandated, the uninformed user tends to find his own easy means to bypass the law and ignore safety.
It is high time that we move away from the populist ideology of mandating regulations and safety devices like six airbags but bite the bitter pill of enforcement and penalties that may affect masses. Of course, harsh measures will face resistance and give discomfort initially, but eventually they will become a habit. There is nothing more important than human life. The medicine must attack the root cause. It is time to act now to address this vital problem.