Friday, July 13, 2007

Are Helmets and Seat belts enough......?

Gone are the days when a mention of an unnatural death used to get everyone's notice. These days, perhaps of the dehumanisation of urban life, we seldom bat an eyelid when we read or hear news of an individual accident or homicide. It is just another statistic to be filed away in some obscure corner of the short term memory, ready to be wiped away when the next installment of cricket score arrives.

I was shocked to read that nearly 2,500 people were killed last year on Mumbai's suburban trains. A mumbaikaar asked me "only those many?", when I mentioned the fact to him. He is right, especially when you consider how many millions of people use that notoriously over crowded system. Sadly, that is not the only instance of death becoming a mundane affair in the urbanscape of today. They are dime a dozen, the buses of New Delhi being another of the many places this phenomenon is happening. And closer to home, Kerala is one of the deadliest States in India to venture out on to the roads, as recent statistics show. A report in todays' The Hindu prompted me to think yet again about the issue, it stated that 438 people had been killed and over 6000 injured in road accidents in the Capital district last year (2006-07).

If we had heard of 438 people being killed in a single accident, it would have catastrophic news, worthy of a few front pages. The Perumon accident which killed half as many is still fresh in the minds of most of us, yet why doesn't anyone bother about the death toll from road accidents? Is it because death in installments doesn't merit our interest and concern or that the concept of the individual has lost meaning?

Of course, it is not that no hue and cry is being raised about the issue. The Government has been voluble in taking "steps" and "corrective actions", but sadly they seem to last no more than a week each time. The Kerala State Road Safety project is one long term initiative to improve the design and safety features of roads, but it seems to have progressed nowhere given the paucity of funds in the Treasury and the lack of focus among implementing agencies. The most common response when there is a spate of accidents is to increase the intensity of enforcement by the Traffic Police and Motor Vehicle department (MVD), conduct a few token awareness campaigns and to whip out that tired, old trick - compulsory helmets!

I have lost count of the number of times that helmets were made "compulsory". Last time, I checked they were supposed to be compulsory anyways. Even discounting popular conspiracy theories that these campaigns are only intended to boost helmet sales, it is nearly impossible to understand why a helmet rule (or the new seatbelt rule) cannot be sustained. If the Traffic Police and MVD can pick up motorists for offenses like drunken driving or over speeding, why can't the helmet rule also be enforced continuously? It is not as if the resilience of the human skull increases and decreases seasonally!

In the report, the usual suspects are well, the usual suspects. Two-wheelers account for the largest portion of vehicles involved in accidents. Actually, this is not surprising considering the fact two wheelers make up the vast majority of vehicles on Indian roads. Autorickshaws are right in front too, not surprising considering the fact that many a driver models himself on the driving antics of Vijay Amritraj in the Bond film Octopussy! Buses account for a small fraction of the accidents but these accidents possibly have more chance of fatalities and serious injuries than the ones involving light vehicles. Another interesting point is that despite the lower traffic conditions at night, a significant portion of accidents happen at night.

Given the fact that two wheelers account for many of the accidents and casualties on the city's roads and that head injury is a leading cause of death in such cases, the helmet law seems a prudent one. And so does the seat belt law, after all seat belts are said to reduce the chance of serious injury in a car crash by up to 50%.

However, life-saving as these might be, they come into play only once the accident occurs and cannot prevent one happening. So while a helmet or seatbelt might prevent loss of life, they may not prevent injury and damage to property. And of course, they can do nothing to prevent injuries to pedestrians, cyclists and users of public transport systems.

There are many ways that accidents can be prevented or minimised. These are, of course, related to the myriad causes behind accidents. While the reasons behind each accident may be unique when considered in detail, the broad causative factors - human error, equipment failure, poor road design, natural causes and so on.

Human error itself, is a agglomeration of a lot of reasons - rash driving, drunken driving, sleeping at the wheel, failure of driving judgement and so on. Strict enforcement of driving rules can help to curb deliberately dangerous driving - the bottle and the thrill factors. Here, the Government is making efforts to bring in better enforcement. There has always been a shortage of law enforcement officials and equipment, but things are better now than in the past. The MVD is deploying US-style, radar equipped Speed Tracers to nab the local Valentino Rossi's and Kimi Raikkonens. One way of overcoming the manpower shortage would be to go in for an electronic traffic management and information system on the lines of B-TRAC in Bangalore. Combined with a system of remote cameras and traffic sensors, such a system will help law enforcers expand their presence radically. It will also enable rapid response which can help prevent impending accidents and also the efficient management of data which will enable sterner punishment to be meted out to repeat offenders.

An area of concern these days is underaged driving and untrained drivers. On a recent visit to a top city school, I was blown away to see that 11th and 12th standard boys (I hope they were atleast in the 11th or 12th) were buzzing around on high performance bikes. I remember the flutter I had caused when I landed up in school with a ungeared scooter (with the due license!), these days a Bajaj Pulsar 180 seems to have replaced the puny Bajaj Sunny in school yards. A stern view needs to be taken of this trend. Not that the only solution is to put everyone back on the school buses. In the US, one can get a car license at 16. That the US has more car accidents than any other nation is another matter (they also have the most cars in the world right now), but maybe we could also look at basing the driving license age on skill rather than on years spent on the Earth. Till then, we may have to put everyone back on the buses or most of them anyway.

The other part is whether licensed drivers are licensed to drive or to kill. A few years ago, one could often get a license without a test if one were influential enough or had a big enough bank balance. Those days seem to have gone now, but the structure of our driving test - the legendary figure eight still remains the centrepiece - leaves a lot to be desired. However, with car companies like Maruti coming up with their own driving schools - which maintain high standards - things seem to be looking up.


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