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Disorder on the roads

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005

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Enhancing road safety is a complex task that needs the involvement of many agencies. Civil society has a crucial role in achieving success in this area.

I AM one of those who believe that the extent of order or chaos that prevails on the roads reflects more or less correctly the state of discipline or lack of it in a community. By this token, we in India are among the most indisciplined species that the Almighty ever created! The pathetic state of affairs on Indian roads is becoming worse each day, with precious little evidence that things are going to change in the near future. The statistics are mind-boggling. On an average, we lose about 100,000 people in road accidents each year. More than a million sustain serious injuries. The social cost of all these is computed at Rs.55 crores.

Many of my friends from abroad often express their astonishment at the sight of Indian policemen standing right under signal lights trying to regulate traffic. The world over, such signals are meant to replace policemen and save on manpower. The assumption is that an average citizen will obey a traffic light at all times, irrespective of whether a policeman is around the place or not. We in India, however, still need policemen to do so. In the absence of watchful policemen, most of us will not care two hoots for traffic lights and speed past them as if they were just objects of illumination to pep up an otherwise murky road. Many motorists driving early in the morning or late in the night may be seen to take a snap decision after surveying the scene for policemen - like a bandicoot looking at a torch as one of my drill instructors at the Mount Abu Police Training College put it most colourfully - and violate red lights with absolute glee. Is this not amusing? Does it not tell adversely on the strength of our character?

To most of us who set much store by established traffic rules, driving cars or two-wheelers calls for extreme courage. It requires greater courage to adhere to rules. You need not have to commit an error yourself to land in a serious accident. There are others who will do it for you with absolute impunity. Many of my friends take the chance of taking to the wheel after a round of drinks, unmindful of the risk they are putting themselves and other road users to. If this is the cavalier attitude of those who are educated and have a stake in conforming to law, what to speak of others who are unlettered or have nothing to look forward to in life.

To what would you attribute this sorry state of affairs? Should not those who are prominent in society be engaged in the task of making our roads safer? Can we permit corrupt practices to cut into our road spaces each day by allowing unauthorised squatters to put up their structures with the least fear of the law? Finally, is it not necessary to examine how to make penalties for rash driving and driving under the influence of liquor more draconian? Cases of suspension of licences are few and far between. Compulsory attendance at special schools, meant to impart road safety education, are talked about, but still remains a dream.

There are many obstacles to better traffic management in our country, chief of which is the shrinking width of most of our thoroughfares. I would place the highest priority to creating more space for the ever-increasing number of vehicles on our roads. We can reasonably expect that the problem of burgeoning traffic will only get exacerbated in the days to come, particularly because we now have a robust automobile industry that has brought pride to India as a nation that can indigenously produce trouble-free cars and two-wheelers. The current chaos will remain so, until we have a good public transport system in all our major cities.

We need to plan for underground trains in cities with more than five or six million population. This is a problem not merely of resources but one of vision as well. Singapore planned for this three decades ahead of the day when it actually wanted a system to keep vehicular traffic moving. It, therefore, makes sense to exploit every inch of space, without allowing it to be squandered in favour of influential encroachers, who not only bribe enforcement officials frequently into indifference, but also display their clout during elections. It is here that we should work towards building a political consensus that is determined to remove ruthlessly, encroachers of pavement space and possibly resettle them outside cities.

Roadside temples are a peculiar Indian phenomenon, especially in Tamil Nadu, and are an abomination that even the most dedicated worshippers would not countenance. They occupy precious pavement space that would otherwise be useful to make our roads safer. A few of these temples have become utterly commercial, much to the dismay of worshippers. Some civil servants have shown aggression on this front, but vested interests have seen to their exit from positions from which they can make a difference to traffic management.

An unfortunate feature of the scene is that the judiciary is generally lukewarm to officials fighting for removal of encroachments. A stay of executive actions on this front is granted liberally, with little thought to its impact on the quality of traffic enforcement. Judicial orders, however well meaning they may be, are extremely difficult to reverse in reasonable time. Many outrageous encroachments therefore remain as they are for decades, and traffic officials are at their wit's end on how to manage such a situation over which they have no control.

LICENSING of those who drive on our roads is still a scandal in most cities. The system has lent itself badly to abuses, leading to avoidable tragedies and loss of precious lives. This is one area where civil servant corruption and apathy, more than the misdemeanour of politicians, is the prominent cause for the horrendous scene. Anti-corruption agencies have done their bit, but they cannot ensure a noticeable change in favour of a clinical objectivity in the grant of licenses, as long as the system is porous.

This is in utter contrast to the situation in the West, where obtaining a driving licence is almost impossible, unless you display a sound knowledge of traffic rules and an ability to manage a vehicle. Also essential is that an applicant demonstrates that he does not suffer from a physical disability which could imperil the lives of other road users. There are visible changes in some of our cities that promise greater transparency in the process. This is not enough. I would concentrate first on the physical fitness of an applicant, especially his power of sight, before testing his ability to drive.

Elimination of the unqualified, solely on this factor should precede permission to apply for a licence. There should be a clear time interval, at least of a week, between a medical examination (that should mandatorily include ophthalmologic testing) and the driving test. This procedure should help to halt indiscriminate and unseemly hurry in the issue of licences, although it may not put an end to all abuses.

The Indian Medical Council has the moral responsibility to persuade medical practitioners to exercise greater caution and responsibility in certifying to the health of an applicant seeking medical clearance for a driving licence. If this process is not strengthened and all loopholes are not plugged, there is no way we can make our roads safer. There is a case for enhancing the accountability of doctors who issue certificates to those who want driving licences. Are they not already accountable to what they prescribe in terms of medicine to their patients and how they perform surgeries? When this is the case, why will they resent a laudable role in ensuring that those who have medical infirmities are kept away from driving? Barring a few black sheep, a majority of our doctors are actuated by a desire to be useful to the community. Stricter standards for clearing an applicant for a driving licence is one sure way serving society, for which they will undoubtedly receive all round gratitude.

Accident investigation calls for the utmost integrity on the part of an investigator. I am afraid that the Indian Police has not exactly distinguished itself on this front. Accident victims will vouch for this. Where an erring driver had been under the influence of liquor at the time of an accident, suppression of such fact has not been uncommon. More questionable is the attempt to help an offending driver by proving that the victim was himself under such influence and had contributed to the accident. Nothing can be more dishonest than this, and supervisory officers seldom have the time or inclination to come down on such malpractices. It is this ambience where a rash driver knows that it is not difficult to get away with the consequences of his negligent driving that dilutes safety on our roads.

What is the answer to dishonest traffic investigation? Reducing the discretion available to investigating officers and professionalising responses to accidents can greatly enhance objectivity. Many European police forces have done this with marked success. More than in any other area of police work, it is here that there is a definite scope for the use of science and technology, if only to make investigations more acceptable. Sometime ago, I came across a professor at a leading engineering school in Austria who had developed an expertise in accident investigations and was being consulted by both the police and insurance companies in coming to conclusions how exactly an accident occurred. That was a unique practice worthy of emulation. The tyre marks at the spot, the exact position of a vehicle after the accident and the nature and extent of damage suffered by different parts of an automobile are all significant indicators, which are unfortunately ignored by most of our investigators. There is no substitute for rigorous training in the subject at well-equipped institutions dedicated to traffic management.

Traffic engineering is another area that has not received the attention it deserves. Detecting flaws in road designs through systematic studies, traffic engineers can make a lot of difference to safety and free traffic flow. Their importance has, however, not been fully comprehended. Very often it is left to police officers to suggest road improvements. They certainly have a role. But they can at best assist engineers with statistics to prepare master plans. It will be the latter who should provide concrete suggestions based on a knowledge of new breakthroughs in road construction and maintenance.

In sum, the kind of indifference and nonchalance that the traffic policeman faces every day is galling. This column does not claim to say something that is original and is not already known to readers. Its endeavour is mainly to re-emphasise important facts in the hope that enlightened citizens are persuaded to take up the challenge of restoring order to our roads. This will save many young lives that are sacrificed each day, only because there is no deterrence against callousness. Let us not leave this crucial aspect of modern life wholly to governments, some of which are sensitive and many not so stirred. After all, it must be remembered, the outcome of elections does not depend on stronger enforcement of traffic rules, and politicians in power may not find it worth their while to study the problem in its entirety.

The silver lining to this otherwise gloomy scenario are some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which are doing their best to bring a semblance of discipline to our roads and raise a new generation of citizens who care for order and decorum. These are headed by brave and dedicated men and women, who trudge along despite the apathy of enforcement agencies. They contend with, not only indifference, but downright hostility from the licensing authorities and the police.

My friend Rohit Baluja of Delhi, who has done remarkable work in the sector and heads an active Institute for Road Traffic Education, will tell you tales that will shock even the most placid of us. Despite all that he has gone through, he is carrying on gallantly so as to spread the message that traffic management is a multidisciplinary professional activity that cannot be left solely in the hands of policemen.

We need more Balujas if we want to enhance road safety, at least marginally. President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is a great visionary who takes up such vital causes however problem-ridden they are. I am hoping that road safety will also receive his attention. A crusading role from him could do the trick.

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