Last week, a major road accident in Bhiloda had taken 15 lives and injured over 30 others, many seriously. Ironically, the residents of Kundol Pal village were traveling to a condolence meet in village Dhandasan. They were tragically greeted by the same fate. The ill-fated tractor pulling a trolley veered off the road and crashed while negotiating a difficult turn on the hilly track. The victims were all males aged 22 and above, including the sarpanch of the village.
‘Why did this happen?’ This question kept pestering me and wouldn’t let me rest! Why are road accidents turning into a major problem, taking such a toll? As it is, we as a developing country have enough problems of health and poverty plaguing us. Why is it that even the preliminary ‘fruits’ of development like vehicles and roads come to haunt and taunt us like the forbidden apple at Eden?
Across the world, two people die while 20 others are seriously injured every minute in road accidents. From the current 1.3 million deaths, there are likely to be 2 million deaths each year by 2030 due to road crashes worldwide. This would come to be the biggest killer, even outnumbering the deaths due to HIV/AIDS. Added to this, nearly 33% of the road casualties are males in the ‘under-30’ age group.
The Kudol Pal accident followed the same rule. Of course, women and girls come to bear the brunt of this, having to cope with the financial and emotional trauma due to the loss of the family head and main breadwinner. As the data tell us their story, a very interesting fact emerges. India, China and Brazil are the countries with the largest number of road deaths. Countries like UK, Israel and Sweden present a contrasting story with only about three road fatalities per hundred thousand of population. Then, why can’t we crack this monstrous menace? Especially when most of the interventions and measures needed are fairly simple, inexpensive and ‘do-able’.
The compulsory use of helmets and seatbelts with strict penalty for speeding and drunken driving goes a long way. Driving tests in countries like the US have challenged and overwhelmed even good drivers. However, in our country money and touts usually flout most tests. Interestingly, the rejection rate for driving tests in India has been very low, except in cases where the applicant doesn’t toe the ‘tout’s line’.
However, a welcome change has been witnessed over the last several months in Gujarat. With a simple computerised online test and a camera monitored the driving test, the dignity and effectiveness of the test has been greatly restored. From a near zero rejection rate earlier on, the rejection rate based on an objective assessment is pegged at nearly 47% this year in the Ahmedabad area.
Notwithstanding the few glitches and spikes that would invariably accompany any such transformational change, this is an intervention that deserves to be cheered. The deaths at Kundol Pal were condoled in person by the chief minister of the state, a very rare and touching gesture in today’s world.
Taking a cue from this gruesome accident, can we address road safety along the dimensions of vehicle, road, driving skills and human behaviour? There is another thought that can’t help sneezing out of me - why can’t Gujarat, which has led so many reforms, consider making driving a mandatory skill for all the young people who cross the threshold of high school education? Wouldn’t this fortify them, and make them more responsible citizens with a better road sense and hence drastically reduce our road fatality?
Jayanti S Ravi
The author is a Harvard educated civil servant and writer, now working in the education sector