Our killer roads
As many as 12 lives were lost within 24 hours due to a spate of road mishaps in different parts of the State on September 10-11 last. Locals in places like Baihata Chariali, Bijni and Gauripur blocked highways in protest, venting their anger at traffic cops. In a State which saw over 85,000 cases of traffic violations last year, such public outbursts are only to be expected. Even in Guwahati city, road hogs in their fancy cars willfully ignore speed limits and lane driving necessities. To check them, the city traffic police now has interceptor cars, but the mece of reckless and drunken driving continues. The drives carried out by traffic police during festivals need to be regular exercises throughout the year, if these are to have any appreciable impact. In fact, compared to last year — year 2014 was much worse with over 1,18,000 traffic violation cases. Given the general lack of traffic sense in this State, as well as lax enforcement of rules, there is nothing surprising about the high number of road accidents and fatalities. According to latest Central government figures released in Parliament, there were 6,959 road accidents recorded last year in Assam, with the number of fatalities standing at 2,397 and over 7,000 injured. The figures were worse in 2013 and 2014, and there is no guarantee that the State will not backslide this year. When it comes to road safety, the traffic authority here cannot afford to take its foot off the pedal. This is because of the pattern of road accidents in this State reflected clearly in tiol Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data two years back. It showed that over half (50.4 percent) the deaths in Assam in 2013 were caused by road accidents, far higher than the tiol average of 36.4 percent.
Experts of GNRC Hospitals in Guwahati, while quoting this report and their own records, had then lamented how road accidents were taking heavy toll among the young. The doctors had spoken about speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol or listening to music or talking on the phone, non-use of seat belts and helmets, as well as the critical lack of facilities elsewhere in the State to treat accident trauma cases. Uneven terrain and poor road conditions, the public ignorance about responding to victims, were also cited as major reasons for high road fatalities. These in turn form the countrywide pattern of road traffic accidents (RTA), outlined by Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari in parliament last May. Anguished that even after ‘two years of dedicated work and sincere efforts’ by his ministry, little has changed on the ground — Gadkari had attributed driver’s fault along with ‘faulty road engineering’ as major causes of road accidents. Several other crucial points came out in reports submitted by the Road Transport ministry and the Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture. It came out that Gadkari’s initiative to change the ‘entire architecture of road transport and safety’ has hit a roadblock. Several states have opposed the proposed move for setting up Central and state level authorities to regulate different aspects of transport, including driving licences. The main disagreement is over ‘sharing of revenues’ — which again is hardly surprising, considering that Transport departments are cash cows for many a state government, including Assam. So Gadkari’s ministry has had to settle for ‘non-controversial, achievable’ measures like stiffer pelties for drunken and uuthorized driving.
The Road Transport Ministry is also reportedly mulling mandatory overspeeding warning system and airbags in all cars, while installing cameras on roadsides to check errant drivers. This means getting the automobile sector on board; after all, car manufacturers in India have been resisting calls to include airbags as a basic safety feature in cars, citing higher costs. Meanwhile, some states are pushing for a road safety app on mobile phones, through which hospitals, ambulances, blood banks, police and administrative help can be accessed by accident victims. This is an effort the Assam government too can support, along with implementing Central guidelines to make it easier for public spirited citizens to help victims. Police and court hassles, as well as the fear of being forced by unscrupulous hospitals to pay admission fees, are known to deter many a would-be good Samaritan from coming forward in victims’ aid. All these aspects need to be incorporated in a comprehensive road safety legislation, which the country still continues to lack. Without such a law, it cannot hope to address the huge socio-economic costs from its dangerous roads, which have claimed over 13 lakh lives in the last ten years.