Geetha was looking forward to collecting the first salary of her life. She was employed as a tailor in a garment unit at Mysore and was planning on how to spend her money. Coming from a very poor family, she was clear on who this money had to be spent on. She would buy her mother the saree that she needed; her brother in school would now get a new bag and the geometry box that he was asking for. She would also buy sweets and distribute them to her neighbours, partly to celebrate her being employed and partly to get them to savour something that was a rarity for all of them. She and her friends would wake up early and be ready by 4 am. And wait along the roadside for the customary taxi to pick them up from Hyrige, their village. The drive to the garment factory in Mysore was about an hour and this gave all of them enough time to exchange notes and share their dreams and pains. Most of them were eagerly looking forward to this day and were excitedly talking about it. Little were they to know that fate had willed otherwise. Things occurred so suddenly that none of them clearly remember what really happened. A Maruti Alto car came crashing down and in a moment of madness, mowed down five of them, killing them instantly. Ten others were hurt before the car screeched to a halt. Within a minute the driver made his escape leaving behind a scene that cannot be imagined. It was 4.30 am and people of this poor village were awakened by the screams and noise. Hurriedly they contacted the police and managed to shift the wounded to the hospital at Mysore, where one more young girl would die within the next couple of days.
Hyrige is on the highway from Mysore to Heggadadevanakote and is mostly populated by poor Dalit families. It was only this generation of young people who had managed to get basic education and were exploring employment opportunities in and around Mysore. 5 of the 6 women who died in this accident were 19-20 years old. The scar of this accident will not just be felt by the families affected but by the entire community for a long time. One irresponsible act of an errant driver was to cost the future of so many young people and their families. So much suffering and pain that could have all been prevented.
As I sat pensively mourning the loss of these young lives, I remembered another tragedy that had occurred two and a half years ago. One of our young doctors wanted to spend his first wedding anniversary in the temple at Basavakalyan. After finishing his darshan, he was returning home in a rented taxi. A lorry carrying concrete electric poles was approaching in the opposite direction. The lorry driver failed to notice the unscientific road humps and drove over them at a high speed. The impact was so much that an electric pole flew out of the lorry, hit the ground and ricocheted back like a bullet into the taxi. It flew through the windshield and hit this young and committed doctor on his head, killing him instantly and wounding his wife sitting beside him. A freak accident had snuffed out the life of a promising young doctor who had given up a mainstream career to serve the poor rural and tribal people in the forests of Mysore.
We all read about such accidents regularly in the newspapers. I scanned the newspapers for the previous month and was deeply affected by the number of people who had died in road traffic accidents. These headlines have become so common that most of us are not even affected by them anymore. Only when a close friend or a relative meets with an accident do we even think of the death traps that exist on Indian roads today. Recently the Mysore city police announced that 12 young people were killed in the previous month in two-wheeler accidents. All of them were not wearing their helmets. The irony of the situation is that one rarely notices the traffic police enforcing the helmet rule and one can still see hundreds of two-wheeler riders riding their bikes at high speeds with scant regard for the police or the traffic rules. Every hour, 40 people under the age of 25 die in road accidents around the globe. According to the World Health Organization, this is the second most important cause of death for 5 to 29 year-olds. In India alone, the death toll rose to 14 per hour in 2009 as opposed to 13 the previous year. The total number of deaths every year due to road accidents has now passed the 135,000 mark according to the latest report of National Crime Records Bureau. While trucks and two-wheelers were responsible for over 40 percent of deaths, peak traffic during the afternoon and evening rush hours is the most dangerous time to be on the roads. This has been revealed by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its first ever Global Status Report on Road Safety. The report pointed to speeding, drunken driving and low use of helmets, seat belts and child restraints in vehicles as the main contributing factors. According to the WHO, India is listed among the most number of accidents. In 78.5 percent of all accidents, the main cause of the road accidents is the fault of the driver. The fault of the pedestrian is 2.2 percent, fault of the cyclist is 1.2 percent, defect of the road contributes to 1.3 percent, defect of two wheelers is 1.8 percent and 0.8 percent is caused by poor weather conditions and all other causes is 14.2 percent. Many drivers don’t follow traffic rules and the common causes of road accidents are rash driving, exceeding the speed limits, jumping signals, not wearing helmets and seat belts, drunken driving, overtaking aggressively and using the cell-phone while driving.
Concerned with the steep raise in road accidents, the Government of India formed the National Road Safety Council, which has come out with a National Road Safety Policy. In the 11th plan (2007-2012) itself, Rs 448 crore was earmarked to be spent on road safety. Despite all this, not much headway has been made and things continue to worsen steadily. I strongly believe that one cannot transfer the responsibility of road safety entirely to the Government. We cannot take away the individual’s responsibility of maintaining safety on our roads. How many of us read and follow traffic rules before we acquire our licenses? How many of us actually receive our licenses based on our ability to drive? Studies have shown that RTO offices around the country are centers of corruption and licenses and vehicle fitness certificates are issued without necessarily following procedures. We need to make sure that formal training, education and testing is done before young people are issued their driving licenses for the first time. Traffic police must take to enforcing rules seriously – whether it is wearing helmets or checking for alcohol levels or monitoring speed limits. Experience of the Bangalore traffic police in taking this responsibility seriously has begun to pay results. Not only have traffic violations come down, but fatalities too are showing a decline. Insurance companies should consider having a differential pricing system and have higher prices for younger drivers and premiums need to go up whenever the driver commits traffic violations or has an accident. City planners have to focus on parking spaces and sanction licenses for buildings like malls, marriage halls, shopping centers and theaters only when they provide adequate space for vehicle parking. All major Indian cities should start regulating traffic during peak hours and make it more expensive to travel within business districts in private vehicles. Public transport facilities too need to be augmented. Large cities should also resort to video surveillance for traffic enforcement and consider having full-time transport management centers. Unscientific road humps need to be removed and other proven speed regulatory methods have to be considered.
While one can keep dishing out prescriptions, we need to understand that road and traffic safety is the responsibility of every Indian Citizen. An enlightened citizenry, a non-corrupt enforcement machinery, good road infrastructure and strong political will – all of them together can and will make a difference. It is time that we as a Nation stop throwing away precious young lives and make our roads safe again.