Mr Gopinath Munde died in a car crash on a clear Tuesday morning in the national capital sending shockwaves through his family, colleagues and a nation revelling in the birth of a new government. If there can be any blessing at all in such a tragic incident then it is this: Because Mr Munde was a minister and possibly a CM in-waiting, his death brought into sharp focus the country’s appalling road safety record with the media training its journalistic guns on an ignominious but globally acknowledged reality: On the safety scale, India is among the most dangerous for road users and, therefore, a holder of the WHO red-rating.
At the risk of sounding repetitive I would like to re-state data that I have shared in in the past—only because it is worth re-stating. India, on an average records 90000 automobile-related deaths every year. The US on the other hand, despite a staggering vehicle population of 175 million (43 times that of India) suffers only 39000 deaths in road mishaps. That is, in deaths per vehicle terms, the country fares 1022 times worse than the US.
Even in Washington DC, America’s most accident-prone city, the time between accidents is an incredible 4.8 years! This figure for Fort Collins in Colorado is 13.9 years—that is if there is a crash today, it is unlikely that there would be another for the next nearly 14 years in that city. More damning for India is the fact that 140 of every 1000 accidents on its roads are fatal—the relative figure for The US is 2. On an average, about 15 per cent of all the people who meet with accidents in India die and about 50 per end up with crippling disabilities.
Like Mr Munde a majority of these people need not die at all—meaning that most of the huge human tragedy that unfolds on Indian roads day after day is completely avoidable. If Mr Munde had been wearing a seat belt, he would NOT have died. Likewise, if Indians at large behaved responsibly on the road, a vast majority of the accidents would not happen, saving thousands of lives.
One reason why India finds itself at the bottom of safety rankings is that every state in the country seems to have its own set of traffic regulations. So, if wearing helmets and seat belts is compulsory in say Delhi it may not be so even in neighbouring Karnal. We are told that this is because policing is not a central subject. The death of Munde must force us out of finding comfort in such technical excuses. Being among the world’s riskiest countries does no good to our nation’s prestige. Nor can the country afford the economic cost of such a large number of avoidable deaths and disabilities.
The time has indeed come for us to act on many fronts: Evolve a traffic regulatory code that is not just common for the entire country but is also far more unsparing and punitive, make enforcement strict and incorruptible and ensure that every city in the country has a quick response trauma care system that can be reached on a uniform helpline number. With the new prime minister, Mr Narendra Modi showing a refreshing willingness to work cohesively with all state governments regardless of their political colour, these goals appear more realistic now than ever.
Also, to make enforcement more effective, we need to increasingly adopt technology enabled systems. This will not only help the police and other agencies regulate traffic and thereby reduce the probability of accidents but also help them keep an eye on road users round the clock and across vast road networks—a task that would otherwise require large armies of constables and officers. In cities famous for disciplined road manners like Singapore, traffic is largely managed and regulated by advanced technology; with a little political will and some enterprise India could emulate such examples. In the end, saving people’s lives has to be a collective national commitment, beyond parochial thought and partisan politics.