Since 2008, India has held on steadfastly to one record it probably doesn’t want to. More people die in India due to road accident related incidents than anywhere else in the world. With over half a million accidents and over 1.5 lakh fatalities every year — and that’s the official figure; unofficially, fatalities could be 20 per cent higher and accidents 50 per cent higher than what’s captured in the crime records database — India’s roads are the world’s most dangerous.

Actually, scratch that. India is home to the world’s most dangerous drivers. Terrible road conditions, ramshackle and downright dangerous vehicles, the world’s most eclectic mix of vehicular traffic — it is not unusual to see everything from a bullock cart to a combine harvester on an Indian highway — millions of poor or untrained drivers and a near absence of enforcement of traffic rules, all add up to make a simple drive to work something out of Fast and furious.

Which is why, Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari’s second attempt to bring our antiquated Motor Vehicles Act somewhere within the current century needs to be commended. The earlier Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Bill was passed in the previous Lok Sabha but failed to get through the Rajya Sabha and lapsed with the dissolution of the House.

This time around, since it has been passed by the Lok Sabha at the start of the current government’s term, chances are bright that the law will enter the statute books soon.

That is, however, just a start to finding a solution. True the sharply enhanced fines for some of the routine violations Indian drivers are particularly prone to — ₹5,000 for speeding/racing, ₹2,000 and loss of licence for three months for going triples on a motorcycle, ₹10,000 for drunken driving and so on — at least bring the quantum of fines into the possible deterrent territory.

Another welcome move is to bring in greater technology into the process of granting driving licences, which can help reduce corruption and prevent non-qualified drivers from being let loose on the streets.

No law enforcement

But the trouble is not with the law, it is with the implementation. According to an assessment done for the Supreme Court’s committee on road safety, Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest State, has just over 3,000 traffic cops, against a requirement of over 48,000. Even the better managed metros like Mumbai and Delhi are thousands short of the minimum number needed to manage the ever growing vehicle population. Without a visible presence of uniforms and strict implementation, you can have any number of laws without any enforcement.

This is where the Centre-State divide comes in. Transport is on the Concurrent list, so both the Centre and States can frame laws and rules. But any Central legislation has to be ratified by the States and implemented by State-level agencies like the police and the transport departments.

And States have been notoriously unwilling to push along reforms in this space. Entrenched bureaucracies and cosy rent-seeking nexuses have managed to defeat most reform measures pushed by the Centre. As a recent investigation by this paper showed, GST and e-way bills may have theoretically removed all impediments to smooth flow of goods between States, but in practice, a truck driver has to run a gauntlet of illegal stops and checks — and pay bribes every step of the way — simply to get from point A to B.

Another Gadkari initiative — computerised testing and remote supervision of driving tests — which he tried to introduce in his first stint, was implemented in just a handful of RTOs, that too in Maharashtra, where he has personal political capital. Most other States simply ignored this.

Behavioural issues

The bigger problem is social change. From jaywalking to ignoring even the most basic of traffic rules (like sticking to the right side of the road) to not using even mandated safety equipment like helmets, dangerous behaviour on the roads by all present on it — pedestrians, drivers and passengers alike — is now deeply engrained in our collective psyche.

There is also a socialist hangover, which always gives the benefit of doubt to the ‘poorer’ of those involved in an incident. In an accident between two vehicles, the driver of the bigger, and therefore, better off, vehicle is at fault (public transport vehicles are the exception to this); if a vehicle hits a pedestrian, it is the vehicle driver’s fault, even if the pedestrian was jaywalking in the middle of a traffic intersection.

No traffic cop would dream of stopping a family on a two-wheeler, even if the lady on the pillion is clutching a baby without any safety strap, and there’s another small kid perched in front, and none of them are wearing a helmet.

So unless all States are brought on board and see the horrifying daily loss of life on our roads as a real problem, are convinced to invest in the manpower and technology needed for effective management, and a massive education campaign is undertaken to sensitise the public on road safety, any number of amendments to the law are going to have little impact.

The auto industry too, needs to do its bit. No two-wheeler manufacturer, for instance, includes a helmet as part of the standard package with a two-wheeler, even though it would add only a few hundred rupees to the cost.

Car-makers were guilty of selling basic safety equipment like airbags as ‘luxury’ extras (even now, they are not standard across all makes for all manufacturers).

Other safety equipment which is standard abroad is not even present here. Why, many vehicles on our roads do not meet tough crash test standards mandatory abroad.

All this in the name of cost saving. Of course, nobody appears to care that the loss of life or limb carries a price far higher than the fanciest luxury car.