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Accidentally notorious

K.G. Kumar

Accidents, like other diseases, are influenced by the society and culture of a country, for example, if corruption makes it easier for people to get a driver's licence.

ACCORDING to the latest report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), during 2000, Kerala recorded the highest number of road accidents in the country, after Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. In all, 35,353 road accidents occurred in that year, killing 2,789 persons and injuring 46,054. Of those killed, 2,291 were males.

Only Tamil Nadu, which reported 48,923 accidents, and Maharashtra (38,273), are worse than Kerala in the road accidents rankings. But it must be remembered that these States, besides being far larger and more populous than Kerala, are also home to metros such as Mumbai and Chennai.

Thus Kerala would appear to have the dubious honour of being the most accident-prone State in India. Kerala reported a share of 43.4 per cent of the total accident deaths in the country during 2000. Accidents that involved buses, both private and Government-owned, claimed 517 lives, while truck and lorry accidents claimed 202 lives and tempo vans, 105 lives. Accidents involving jeeps claimed 244 lives, cars 148, two-wheelers 525, three-wheelers 208 and bicycles 113. In that year, 628 pedestrians were killed on the roads of Kerala.

The trend reported by Kerala is part of a larger phenomenon found in most developing countries. Last year, Adnan Hyder, a founding member of the Road Traffic Injury Research Network, and a professor of international health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, was quoted in CBS News as saying that traffic accidents kill more than one million people each year, injure tens of millions more and cost developing countries twice as much as they receive in international aid.

According to UN statistics, almost 1.2 million people were killed on the world's roads in 1998. By 2020, road accidents will be the world's third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and deaths linked to mental illness.

Most of the accidents occur in developing countries where Western-style traffic regulations are largely ineffective because they are rarely enforced or because people and vehicles have to share the same busy roads.

Most road safety studies are produced in rich countries and their lessons may not be appropriate for the developing world, he said. Boosting law enforcement - clamping down on people who fail to wear a seat belt or helmets, for example - can be much less effective than "separating the space," so pedestrians and cyclists do not have to travel alongside cars or buses, according to Hyder.

"Imposing speed limits or posting signs and assuming that will change people's habits is insufficient. Accidents, like other diseases, are influenced by the society and culture of a country, for example, if corruption makes it easier for people to get a driver's licence," he added.

The Road Traffic Injury Research Network, which is funded by the World Health Organisation, and supported by the World Bank and the Geneva-based Global Forum for Health Research, is a UN research group, which includes experts from the United States, Australia, Uganda, India, China and Mexico.

The network wants to collect evidence of the impact of unsafe roads, reckless and drunken driving, speeding, dangerous overtaking and poorly maintained vehicles and use that to research accident prevention measures.

In terms of the rates of injury, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are regions of the world where road traffic accidents are taking many lives, particularly in the younger age groups. The majority of victims are male and 15-45 years old, the most productive class in society. Road accident survivors also occupy 25 per cent of hospital beds.

In 1998, more than one million of the world's road accident victims were in Africa, Asia, South and Central America and regions like the former Soviet Union. Poorly maintained public transport was responsible for 60 to 70 per cent of accidents in developing countries.

Kerala, which prides itself on its public initiatives, should perhaps mull over that piece of statistic.

The writer can be contacted at kg@tug.org.in

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