India is in The Midst of a Silent Epidemic but Does Anyone Care?

Posted on July 20, 2009 in Society

Piyush Tewari, the Founder of SaveLife Foundation, which was established in February 2008 in response to the ever-increasing incidents of road accident deaths due to lack of timely intervention to save the victims, narrates his real life experience and a few essential tips and steps on how the road accident fatalities can be reduced in this guest post at Youth Ki Awaaz.

Last evening, I left my office in Gurgaon a little late than usual for my home in Noida. As I was approaching the highway toll booth, driving in the right-most lane, I noticed a cyclist in the middle lane. I slowed down a bit and honked lightly to let him know that I was about to pass. Just as I was going to cross him, he suddenly swerved into my lane with his right hand jutting out. He never looked behind to check the traffic. I braked and nearly avoided being hit by a mini-truck behind me. I honked in protest but got a stare in return that soon changed into a grin mocking me. I then saw him lifting his bicycle through the central verge, mounting it again and riding across 4 lanes almost perpendicular to the traffic, inviting honks and abuses from other drivers. He clearly didn’t care for his own, or others’ safety. Neither did the guards posted on the highway responsible for warding off cyclists to the service lane

I moved on and reminded myself of being even more careful than I usually am. By the time I reached home, I had encountered trucks with blinding headlights driving at a break-neck speed, motor-cyclists without helmets swerving across lanes (including the bus lane!), call center cabs driving at almost 100 Kmph all over the road, the infamous Blue-line buses honking the crap out of auto-rickshaw drivers, and between all this, pedestrians trying to cross the road even with a foot-over-bridge within comfortable distance. Throughout the journey I didn’t spot even a single traffic cop. But then do they really do much even during the day when they are around? Fortunately I didn’t witness any accidents which are all so common in this part of the world. This wasn’t the first time I had had a frustrating drive from Gurgaon to Noida or vice versa. But maybe for the first time I realized that nobody really cares about what goes on on our roads — the drivers, the pedestrians, the cops and the law makers put together.

Consider this,

– According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, last year over 130,000 people died in road accidents in the country, by far the most in the world.
– Simple math converts that figure to an average of 15 road accident deaths every hour.
– To put that in perspective, the figure is significantly higher than the death toll in 15 years of Kashmir insurgency (both civilian and military) and the Kargil war, put together!
– Most fatalities have been in the age group of 15 — 50. The socio-economic impact can be determined just by understanding how a death or injury to a productive family member impacts the whole family.

10 years ago a WHO report had stated that India will see an annual escalation of over 3% in road accident deaths till 2040 unless emergency measures are taken. We have already surpassed the prediction with over 15% escalation year on year for the past 3 years, but unlike reservations or T&D losses, making our roads safer doesn’t seem to be a top priority for any political formation in India, despite the epidemic proportions of the problem. As a newspaper recently put it, “India has always suffered from appalling misallocations of investment. This is just another glaring example”. Across India, the concept of emergency services is still non-existent and in metros still very nascent. Victims have to wait for many minutes and sometimes even hours to get any kind of trained help. Ambulances serve merely as patient transportation vehicles and are not equipped to provide critical pre-hospital care. Police jeeps are not equipped with stretchers or spine boards, increasing the probability of severe spinal and head injuries, and policemen have no idea of first aid. Across Europe and United States, and many countries in Asia, policemen are required to have first aid skills including CPR, but not for the force that polices the second largest population on this planet. Rampant corruption in RTOs ensures that anyone can get a driving license without a test, for a ‘fee’. There are no or limited facilities for pedestrians to cross roads and they end up taking grave chances to get to the other side. The state of our roads is well known. A few weeks back in Delhi a motor-cyclist with his daughter riding pillion couldn’t negotiate a rough patch and they both fell from the bike only to be run over by a truck. And there is no one to control the truck menace on our highways or surface streets. They come into the city, drive like maniacs and get away without being prosecuted. Many do stop at check posts to ‘pay their respect’ to the cops.

But the government alone cannot be blamed when people themselves don’t care for their safety.

– Cyclists think that being the smallest/slowest members on the road they will never get the blame for an accident.
– Motor-cyclists perhaps believe they will never get into an accident while they make their death-defying moves with or without a helmet (…and women pillion riders refuse to wear helmets perhaps because they are gifted with stronger skulls than their male counterparts?!?). In any case, most bikers wear helmets not for their safety but to avoid getting fined and therefore many-a-times go for make-shift helmets or ones that are of very poor quality.
– The bus drivers and owners strive to do more rounds and pack their buses even if it means running over a few people.
– And cab drivers are simply in a rush as if always on nature’s call. But more importantly, it’s the passengers in these cabs that I’m most shocked about. A friend recently had his car nicked by a call-center cab and the employees sitting inside the cab flashed gang signs and laughed at him while the cabbie sped away. These occupants certainly didn’t care about the number of people or cars the driver took out while he rushed them to their office. I have noticed similar attitude in the Gurgaon toll lanes as well, where a cabbie would break a lane (whenever there are any), go right ahead and shove his cab back in the lane while employees look the other away. I employ the services of such cabs for my company too and know that it doesn’t take much to ask the driver to slow down or complain to the company if he doesn’t. Well this note is not enough to talk about this phenomena and I will write another one just dedicated to this aspect.
– Finally, the private car drivers. I have always felt that many drivers on our roads get a sense of achievement if they takeover another vehicle or swerve across lanes as they speed ahead. It seems they haven’t succeeded anywhere else in life and want to make up for the loss while they are on the road. Or maybe their cars don’t have breaks. But the moot point is that very few care for any other person on the road.

When all these characteristics come together we get a nasty cocktail of death and destruction that makes India World No. 1 in road accident deaths. China is a distant No. 2 with under-100,000 road fatalities.
But does anyone care?

Well there are pockets where things are looking up.

– Satyam Computers has started a well-equipped ambulance service in Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Jaipur, and soon in Delhi.
– In Delhi again, Police Control Room (PCR) vans are reaching accident sites within minutes and evacuating victims (there’s of course much to be desired in quality of evacuation).
– The Lifeline Foundation is providing search and rescue service on Gujarat’s highways.
– On 27th February 2007, the Supreme Court passed a ruling stating that bystanders helping victims of accidents and violence cannot be questioned by hospitals or the Police; their job ends the moment they leave the victim at the hospital or nursing home. It is the hospital’s responsibility to call the Police, stabilize the victim, and shift him/her to a center of higher care.

All are steps in the right direction, but for a country as big as ours, we need reforms at the policy level. We need initiatives that address the present as well as the future.

– Standards need to be set for ambulances, road quality, issuance of driving licenses and Police training across the country, and people flouting them need be put behind bars for a long time.
– The need for safe driving must be emphasized at the school level itself and all students must be put through sessions of life saving skills.
– A country-wide campaign needs to be launched to re-educate the general public in traffic rules.
– A single-number on the lines of US’ 911 needs to be set-up (perhaps as a public-private partnership for efficient management) across the country to ensure a quick and well coordinated response to accidents.
– In cities where traffic is an issue, choppers need to be pressed into service to evacuate critical victims. The Army and Air Force can surely contribute here as they normally do during natural disasters, until our cities can afford to create this service. Though looking at the usage of choppers by our politicians during elections, I’m sure something can be done in that direction.
– If that is difficult, medics on bikes need to be pressed into service for rushing through traffic and attending to victims before an ambulance or police car arrives. This will ensure that the victim gets stabilized before being shifted to a hospital.
– Laws need to be strengthened to ensure fair investigations of accidents so that the driver of the bigger vehicle in an accident doesn’t go behind bars just based on assumptions.
– There is a desperate need for pedestrian facilities in our cities and the government needs to attend to this deficiency immediately.
– And lastly, public transport needs to be expanded and modernized so that people avoid using their own vehicles at least on weekdays.

This is not anything out of the box. We all know that these are the right steps forward. What is missing is a collective effort to make our roads safer and pull India down from the No. 1 slot in this gloomy global list of deaths. Unless we care enough, and care NOW, this epidemic is never going to come under control.

– Piyush Tewari, Founder, SaveLife Foundation