From November 2006
What is the greatest risk to an Indian’s life and limb? Terrorism, so beloved of politicians and media? Think again. Have any of you ever even been in the neighbourhood of a terrorist strike? You’re more likely to die of bee stings or dog bites. Disease? Better, but not even close. Riots? Gujarat pogroms don’t happen every year, do they?
Well, none of these, obviously. But you are risking your life every day, I assure you. Every time you step out of your house. Because our beloved country, the best in the world, the best culture and the best food and the best language and the best education and the best everything, also has the most efficient method of killing you on the roads.
How many people died of terrorism related causes, in all of last year in India? A thousand? Two thousand at most, including terrorists and "collateral damage" inflicted by the security forces (that is probably a wild overestimate, frankly, but let’s take it as 2000). A "horrendous toll," we’re told, which constitutes the biggest threat to the nation. And how many people are killed by road accidents? A mere 100,000. That’s right. You are fifty times more likely to be killed by traffic than you are by a terrorist or by a soldier shooting at a terrorist. That works out, according to September 2005 figures, at one person dying and ten being injured every six minutes, somewhere in this great land.
Even the army loses a thousand soldiers per year (twice the official toll, which incidentally I don’t believe, in the Kargil "war" of 1999) in traffic accidents alone…
As more and more cars come on the road, the figures can only rise.
First let me talk about what I myself see:
In a decade of a terrorist campaign visited on the people of Meghalaya state by theHynniewtrep National Liberation Council, the yearly toll was at its peak perhaps fifteen people. Within the last two months, not less than a dozen people have been killed in and around Shillong city alone simply from having overloaded trucks overturning on their cars…so much so that one doesn’t want to drive past these trucks. On hill roads, they are a weapon of mass destruction. I do not even mention more mundane accidents. These trucks mostly carry coal from the privately owned and totally unregulated coal mines in the Jaintia Hills. They are allowed officially to carry a maximum of ten tons per truck. Of course, with the usual Indian attitude towards laws, the owners first get the engines adjusted for more power (at the expense of more inefficient fuel usage and shorter engine life, but who cares about that?) and after that the drivers take on not less than fifteen or sixteen tons per truck. (These are of course rigid-framed trucks like the ones in the photo. Not articulated giant trucks which would have more of an excuse to overturn but which are actually safer, since they crash much less frequently.)
This load is not just blatantly illegal; it is stowed any old how, without knowledge or any attempt to load keeping the centre of gravity low, thrown in with the use of wooden slats to increase the height of the sides of the truck. There are supposed to be weigh bridges to make sure the trucks aren’t exceeding their loads. These are "managed" (got round) in two ways: either by the payment of the usual bribe money (at so much per ton extra), or by unloading the surplus coal before the weigh bridge to local people and then retrieving it from them at a commission when the truck’s past the bridge (this is a good way of making a living by many Jaintia villagers).
The coal, thus stowed, shifts around with ease and on slopes is so unstable that if one is driving behind a truck one can actually clearly see its body shift on the chassis at an angle. On any inter-city trip one might see not less than five or six trucks toppled over. Most of the time they don’t fall on people; yet that is now happening more and more frequently, and will continue happening because free road space will continue to decline owing to the large numbers of cars coming on the roads every day.
Which brings us to another cause of accidents; everyone seems to want to own a personal vehicle and since the number of driver training facilities are not exactly overwhelming in India (Shillong, for example, has just the Don Bosco driver training school which is unofficially reserved for Catholics alone) people learn by trial and error or under the tutelage of those who know nothing much about driving themselves. All instructors in India are either ignorant of the laws of the road or know of them but are "practical" about following them (which means of course that they ignore them utterly).
As for the truck drivers, they don’t even have the knowledge imparted by "practical" instructors. Truck drivers in India start out as cleaners and handymen and learn "on the job", driving especially at night while the "ustad" (official driver) takes a kip on the back bench of the cabin.
How do they get their licenses, you ask? Do you really need to ask? You don’t even have to know how to drive to acquire a license in this country…
And of course for everyone, the alcohol flows like water - for everyone. It’s been estimated that 80% or more of Indian road fatalities are caused by drunk drivers. What chance has the law when even the policemen responsible for implementing the law are dead drunk themselves?
In the North East we don’t yet have too many incidents like Mumbai of drunken rich brats in big cars crushing people on pavements to death every weekend, but rest assured, it will happen here too, sooner rather than later. Possibly next Saturday.
A few days back I was stuck in traffic on my motorcycle. I was at the side of the road, stopped at a relatively healthy distance behind a large truck. The truck was not moving at all, the whole line was jammed solid. Suddenly a blue Tata Indica came up on my right side, at full speed, missed me by perhaps ten centimetres, and screeched to a halt within kissing distance of the truck. There was nowhere the car would be able to go anyway; the truck was not moving, but the car would not want to let the couple of metres of road space go waste. This is absolutely typical.
What did I do? Nothing. I don’t want to be turned into a road rage statistic.
And as a driver, I’d also point out the fact that Indian pedestrians do not know how to walk on the road. They don’t even use pavements when these are ready to hand and have not been encroached on by stalls. Jaywalking is hardly a crime in India; "everyone does it", and pedestrians are not considered road users by law. And in the Indian context, envious pedestrians are always ready to gang up on a car owner if there is an accident (they wish they had their own cars as well) even if it is not the car owner’s fault.
Of course, seat belts might as well not exist, going by the vanishingly small numbers who use them, and as for helmets, the less said the better. It’s usual to see scooterists carrying plastic caps which they pass off as "helmets", and which they only clap on when in sight of traffic police, and whip off again when safely past. One would think the laws are there not for their safety but only to harass them, and that they are pulling a great trick over the police by their antics with these "helmets".
So, if we’ve done talking about the problems, what is to be done?
There are many solutions to the problems. The biggest problem is however the lack of a will to implement them.
Still, let’s suggest a few:
First, implement the existing laws. Easier said than done in the Indian context where the payment of a few hundred rupees in bribes can work magic, but there are still a few honest characters buried in the woodwork.
Second, toughen the laws up. A drunken driver gets a maximum sentence of six months in India or a Rs2000 fine. This is no deterrent to a rich brat. Six months would never have to be served; Rs2000 is pocket money.
Third, establish a database of driving licenses. This may amaze one, but in India one might lose one’s license yet be able to get one issued from a neighbouring state, perfectly legally. Make it illegal to issue a license unless the applicant goes through a recognised driving school, which should have definite guidelines. Private coaching should not be acceptable.
Fourth, improve the road condition. Broaden them, relay them if possible. Make driving less fatiguing.
Fifth, impose at least a thousand per cent tax on alcohol. This is one fast and effective way of reducing drunken driving.
Sixth, impose fines on motorists driving without seat belts and motorcyclists or scooterists driving without helmets or with plastic caps which are passed off as helmets. I realise that Indian police are intrinsically corrupt, so I suggest that they should be given a substantial percentage of the fine money as an incentive to collect the fine rather than take a bribe.
Seventh, discourage private transport by encouraging the use of buses. For this buses have to be better in both quality and comfort, as well as numbers. Bus networks have to be increased. Private cars have to be heavily taxed. There is no justification for using a car to travel when the distance is less than a kilometre or so. Yet one sees every schoolchild being dropped by car if the family owns a car, even if the child lives within visual distance of the school.
Eighth, since truck drivers are not just a law unto themselves but probably beyond correction, they should be made to take bypasses round cities so they kill only themselves when they crash. In the meantime better trucks and proper driver training should be introduced (in St Petersburg, Russia, I saw for myself how disciplined even very large trucks can be with well-trained drivers at the wheel).
Ninth, start teaching schoolchildren how to walk on the roads. By the time they reach adulthood it’s too late. And also begin fining jaywalkers; the same incentives as applicable for driving fines should apply.
Tenth, of course, improve vehicle safety features. Indian cars have very few, so few indeed that when a car has what would be considered a standard fitting in the West (an air bag, for instance) this it touted as a USP here. A Maruti hit by another vehicle tends to end up looking like a crumpled cardboard box. One can only wonder at the condition of the occupants.
There is yet another solution which will never be implemented despite being proven to be effective: this is driving on the right of the road, not the left. This should have been implemented in the fifties; far too late now. It is safer because drivers reflexively steer the vehicle to the side of their dominant hand in a sudden emergency. Since most people are right handed, they would tend to steer the vehicle to the side of the road in any country where people drive on the right; but in those countries where people drive on the left, they would simply swing it towards the middle of the road and increase the chances of a crash. It’s been proved that switching to the right brings down accident rates. Sweden switched in the seventies and accident rates dropped sharply.
OK, that’s asking for the moon, sun, and stars. But what about the rest of it? I know it’s more electorally effective to spout off about terrorism, and that road reforms cost money and take time, but still…
All I’m asking for is the chance to be relatively sure of coming back alive after driving to a day’s work and back.
Is that too much to ask?