No, I have not used the wrong “C’ word.
India has the highest number of road accident deaths in the world, accounting for 11% of such deaths worldwide.
Records show that some 151,113 people were killed and 126,759 grievously injured in road accidents in 2019, and this is not a freak number.
This happens every year. In fact, these numbers did actually reduce slightly in 2019 compared to earlier years.
In 2020, COVID-19 took almost the same number of lives in India.
The fear of death changed the lifestyles of people, drove the economy into a recession and energised people into taking seemingly unthinkable precautions.
But COVID-19 is (hopefully) a one-time disaster, now nearly in control. But death in road accidents is a continuing occurrence. People do not seem to fear road accidents!
This is not only an unbearably tragic loss to our nation, but a huge economic loss as well. I will not dwell on the emotional aspect of this tragedy, but only a little bit on the economic side of it.
The government has proposed a compensation of Rs5 lakh for death, and Rs2.5 lakh for grievous injury, in a road accident.
To my mind, Rs5 lakh does not come anywhere close to the earning potential of a young man for his entire working life. But let me yield to the judgement of the government. Perhaps this number is the maximum ‘affordable’ amount for our country.
The total cost of road accidents is huge. The transport ministry’s report on road accidents mentions an independent study, which found that the socio-economic cost of road accidents in India in 2018 was Rs1,47,114 crore, equivalent to 0.77% of the nation's GDP.
This is almost twice the transport ministry’s annual budget in 2018-19. Big number, huh?
Another fact – a little over 50% of COVID-19 deaths fall in the 60+ age group, (people like me, whose contribution to the economy is over and done with - writing articles doesn’t count), whereas an overwhelming 84.3% of people killed in road accidents fell in the 18-60 years age bracket, the most productive age.
Bottom line—road accidents kill our productive citizens and cost nearly Rs1.5 lakh crore annually.
Why do these accidents happen?
The overwhelming reason is over speeding – 74%.
And who are the culprits?
The biggest ‘crime vehicle’ (government term, not mine) is the two-wheeler, accounting for 34.2% of the accidents and 37% of the deaths.
Trucks, which are by far the leaders in terms of vehicle-km numbers, account for 20%.
And the hapless pedestrians, who perhaps just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, form the second biggest group of accident death victims – 17.1% of the deaths.
Now, let’s think about what can be done to stop this colossal waste.
The government is trying, no doubt, but this is a behemoth of a problem that takes enormous effort to nudge, let alone move.
State governments are involved, and they are sometimes strangely reluctant to bring in stiffer laws. An obvious example – driving licences.
It is still ridiculously easy to get a driving licence in India. When I returned to Kolkata I found that renewing my long-expired Maharashtra licence was a herculean task which required going to Mumbai and staying there for a long time.
So, I applied for a new licence.
The biggest problem, you may not believe, was not establishing my physical ability to drive (at age 60), nor my driving skills. For the former, a doctor gave me a certificate without any examination, and even complimented me on how fast I had filled up the form.
For the latter, I had to appear for a ridiculous driving test, which required me to drive 100 meters around a small park, and the examiner was not even watching me!
Strangely, I had a hell of a time establishing my address – that was the difficult part.
Later my friends told me that I had been stupid.
A 'Mr Fixit' would have delivered my licence to me at home, without my having to do anything except sign a blank form, for a very 'reasonable' amount.
The government says that 30% of Indian driving licences are fake.
Unfit people are riding and driving motor vehicles. I wonder how we manage to get by with ‘only’ 1.5 lakh deaths and Rs1.5 lakh crore loss!
So what do we do about it? Tougher laws? Hard to enact, even harder to enforce.
Make people understand? You must be joking.
Put more cameras and cops on the roads? Sorry, no money. Then what?
The only thing that really motivates people in India, and makes them obey, is fear. Here is how fear can be instilled in peoples’ minds, so that they follow the rules.
If a traffic cop spots any traffic violation – over speeding, lane breaking, no helmet, or three on a bike, just let the air out of the tire(s), one tire in case of a motorbike, and two tyres if the vehicle has a spare. There is no need for challans, court case, fines, arguments…. stuff that takes up administrative time.
Actually, many people do not care much about fines. They treat it as ‘cost of using transport’, just as bribes are regarded as ‘cost of doing businesses.
Even the loss of a licence is not actually punitive – you can always pay “Mr Fixit” to have another one made for you.
But if you have ever pushed a bike with a punctured tire in the hot sun, you will understand what I mean. A car with two flat tyres is not much fun either. If there is any real deterrent to ignoring traffic rules, this is it.
I know - probably too zany an idea. There will be many protests, some human rights activists will run to the courts, and unethical traffic cops will miss their bribes. But it will work, I believe.
This out-of-the-box idea apart, what I am trying to say is this: road accidents are costly in human and money terms, innocent bystanders get hurt apart from the lawless driver, and most importantly, the nation loses many productive citizens.
Mr Gadkari is trying his best, but it is about time we do our bit, too.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)