Saturday, January 2, 2010

Road to disaster-The Tribune, Chandigarh

Despite the dubious distinction of having the highest road crash fatalities in the world, little has been done to check this menace in our country, writes Rupinder Singh

GLOBALLY, 1.3 million people are killed and at least 50 million injured in road accidents. India holds the dubious distinction of having the highest road crash fatalities in the world. With 1 per cent of the world's vehicular population, the country accounts for 10 per cent of the fatalities. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, as many as 1,15,000 Indians died in road crashes in 2007. This means every 13 Indian is lost to road crash every hour.

According to the Planning Commission of India, for every fatality there are 15 serious life-altering injuries. More than 1.5 million Indians and their families suffered due to road traffic injuries in 2007 alone. Statistically, 2008 was an exceptional year when accident rates fell but this was attributed to high fuel prices, because of which people made fewer trips and were less exposed to traffic. Research says that with an increase of 10 per cent in fuel prices, fatalities are reduced by 2.3 per cent. In 2008, Chandigarh had 146 fatalities and till November 23, 2009, there were 147 fatalities. With about 300 Indians dying everyday on roads, it is like a 26/11 happening every 15 hours. The annual human loss is like that of a medium scale war and still nothing much is being done. An army officer, in a conversation, regretted that in the last two years, we lost more jawans to road crashes than to terrorism. Why is that headlines about terror attack, H1N1, etc. shock us more than that of road accidents?

Stalin once said "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic". It's high time we moved beyond the statistics and focussed on the tragedies that hits families. I and my family could have been a statistic on October 31 when on our way to Delhi to attend a wedding we met with an accident. I was driving a Safari when I saw a calf crossing the median on the highway. I slowed down. After crossing half the way, it turned back. I had no choice but to slow down further. As I was slowing down, I saw in the rear view mirror a bus approaching us. I alerted my family as I wasn't sure if the driver would manage to stop. Not unexpectedly, the bus banged into our vehicle. Luckily, we all survived. I got down and realised that the bus that was following us had almost managed to stop but, another one following it couldn't, and hit it. The bus behind us hit our vehicle due to the impact. All three vehicles got damaged and some bus passengers got bruises. A major tragedy was averted but all attempts to convince the second bus driver about over-speeding got negated by his experience of more than two decades and this being the very first incident.

Similarly, the traffic in Delhi was maddening as ever. Beginning from a traffic point, we got the scare of our life when we realised that the truck next to us was laden with big boulders and the road was uneven. One boulder would have been enough to convert all of us into statistics.

On our journey back to Chandigarh on December 1, right after the toll plaza of Panipat, there was a traffic jam up till Karnal. All along we were moved in the left lane as the right lane had been occupied by buses and trucks. Motorists were meandering left, right and every inch of the road space was being fought for. The sight was so intimidating for my daughter that for the first time she said "Papa, let's move to New Zealand". I'm a resident of New Zealand and have made a conscious decision to be here and work on road safety.

We came back traumatised but safe and sound. A Panchkula family wasn't lucky enough that very day. Madhavi, a class 12 student lost her parents, brother (Dhruv) and a cousin (Archit) to recklessness of a truck driver. Madhavi's life and dreams changed forever. Later, media reported attending of kirya ceremony by three beneficiaries of Dhruv and Archit's eyes. Did a family that can be so benevolent even during the worst of a trauma deserve to suffer at the hands of an indifferent driver and callous emergency evacuation system (they were attended after two hours)? Would it have been anymore traumatic for Aggarwals if they had suffered at the hands of somebody driven by ideology rather than somebody driven by ignorance, arrogance and indifference? This indifference terrorises us all, on all roads and at all times.

Over the past five years, the annual increase in road traffic fatalities has been around 8 per cent as compared to 5 per cent earlier. During this same era, India witnessed the highest rate of urbanisation and motorisation. This raises a very pertinent question here: Can India be a developed nation and have such high road crash fatalities? The answer is 'No' as all developed nations have substantially reduced road crash fatalities by designing safe road systems for all road users and inculcating and enforcing sensible driving behaviour. India cannot be an exception — developed yet chaotic. Urbansiation is unavoidable for 21st century India and it poses a Herculean challenge to check this chaos on roads.

Since, road crashes are causative in nature and are preventable thus all deaths and injuries are unacceptable. The pandemic warrants a holistic approach and a comprehensive road safety strategy must have 4E's — Engineering, Education, Enforcement, and Emergency.

Enforcement by police is an integral component but in India we regard it as the panacea. Drunken driving needs to be tackled through zero tolerance but it would be unfair to expect the police to ensure it, when faced by mushrooming of temporary liquor vends and aahtas as a consequence of the liberal excise policy along roads and highways. Few years back Chandigarh permitted temporary vends and aahtas on V3 (main road dividing sectors) in pursuance of revenue. This was a shocking deviation as the administration otherwise doesn't allow any direct excess to V3 road from any property nor lets any vendor be on these roads. Also, it's too much for a city that prides itself in being the first no smoking city of India. It takes years of being a passive smoker to suffer the ill-effects of smoking but one could suffer any moment due to a drunk driver on the road.

Chandigarh, which defines urban planning, has equally neglected the needs of vulnerable road users (VRU's) — cyclists, pedestrians, rickshaw puller and passengers. Though it has compulsory cycle and rickshaw tracks, the non-provision of lighting has made these unworthy of use during night. Also, they are confined to a few roads and have not been provided at high cycle rider density areas like Industrial Area 1, Ram Darbar, colony number 4 and 5. Non-existence of footpaths on V2, V3 and V5 roads compromise pedestrian safety. The footpaths too have been encroached upon by car owners or not maintained thus, leaving pedestrians no choice but to share the road with motorised traffic. In case of a collision, impact is almost always borne by VRU's and out of the current 147 fatality in Chandigarh, almost 50 per cent are VRU's — 46 pedestrians, 22 cyclists and 3 rickshawpullers or passengers. Thus, engineering has the potential to reduce fatalities by designing structure that segregates the VRU's from motorised traffic. The Central Government, through its National Urban Renewal Mission (NURM), has given priority to the setting up of cycle tracks and pedestrian paths, but, if a city like Chandigarh that also aspires to be environment friendly-solar city lacks them, where else can they be expected?

Chandigarh's wide roads have two or three lanes, but the lanes vanish near roundabouts. This shows engineering deficiency. Further, traffic lights negate the 'Right of way' of those negotiating the roundabout. Most city roads don't have signs and markings to enforce "Give Way" — making it 'Might of Way' rather than 'Right of way'. All this calls for immediate attention.

Education is the key as the best of the roads and the safest of cars won't reduce fatalities if we continue to have skill-deficient drivers. Developed nations have moved to a graduated licencing system and it takes at least two years for drivers to drive independently. We need to ensure that drivers with certain acceptable skill level are only allowed on the road. Driving should be a citizen's privilege not a right. Emotive and appealing communication rather than ineffective slogans should be undertaken on a sustained basis, and traffic safety education should be introduced in schools not only to prepare the next generation road users but also reverse-train their parents. Similarly, a certification system that ascertains vehicular health over and above the pollution checks should be introduced at the earliest for all the vehicles.

Death of political leaders like Capt. Kanwaljit Singh, Sahib Singh Verma, Rajesh Pilot and others convey the vulnerability of us all. The challenge is to change the mindset. Sooner or later, we will have to if we want India to be counted as a developed nation. For our own good, let us begin by realising that challan is not the only consequence of speeding, drunken driving, mobile usage, non-usage of seat belts or helmet, driving skill deficiency.

In this war on roads, let us wish none of us becomes a killer or an innocent victim. Wishing you a safe journey called life.

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