Feb 182013
 

My column in today’s DNA

In Mumbai, a few days ago, Mobin Barmare decided to save some time, by speeding on the wrong side of the road on a one way street. Two people died as a result of this. Chandrakant Tupe, who drove an auto rickshaw, was handing back change to his customer, when the car rammed the rickshaw and killed him. The second victim, Mahesh Ajwani, was a diamond merchant, returning from dropping his son at school. The car hit the bike, the impact flung him and he landed on his head. Both Ajwani and Tupe were declared dead on arrival at the hospital. Two men, both of whom were the sole bread winners in their family, left home in the morning for an ordinary day at work – never to return. Every family’s worst nightmare come true.

Every day, countless such accidents occur throughout the length and breadth of India. The UNESCAP (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) in its survey in 2009, looked at the sorry state of road safety in India. There were, in that year, over 4.8 lakh road accidents, 5.15 lakh injuries, and 1.25 lakh fatalities. This works out to a staggering figure: One accident every minute, and one death due to road accident every four minutes in India. According to FICCI, India accounts for 15% of the world’s road fatalities, when India has just over 1% of the world’s vehicles. They also estimate that the economic loss due to road accidents is almost 2.5% of the GDP. According to Government of India studies, almost 80% of all accidents in the country occurs due to error of the driver. The remaining 20% includes fault of pedestrian, cyclist, poor roads, badly maintained vehicle, falling boulders, crashing bridges and the like.

Ready, Steady, Go

Every day, when one commutes in any major city, using the roads, one cannot help but marvel at the fact that more people aren’t dead or injured in accidents. The entire system seems to be geared not to follow any rules of road safety. Forget road safety for a minute, they are not even geared to follow rules of basic common sense. If Darwin had seen the way Indian motorists and pedestrians behave, he may not have said ‘survival of the fittest’. He would have probably modified his theory to ‘survival of the luckiest’.

Motorists and pedestrians alike seem to be living on a wing and a prayer. In many ways, the Indian approach to traffic is symptomatic of our approach to law. If no one is watching, break it. It is easier to break the law, than to follow it. If you, by mistake, stop at a red light there will be irate motorists behind you who will honk like you have committed a capital crime. Every time there is a fatality, there is handwringing but pretty much little else. People do not change their fundamental behaviour, and that is to break the law. The rationale used is ‘everyone else is breaking it; And since there is neither economic, nor social nor legal cost attached to breaking the law, more and more people do this without any qualms.

The solution is not more laws. There are enough and more of them already. The solution needs to be acute inconvenience caused by breaking the law. Today, the penalty for most traffic violations is miniscule. For most, including cab drivers and rickshaw drivers, it is a small part of the income. The loss due to complying with the law, for most, is greater – less number of fares, more time taken to arrive, et al. So how does one change that? By raising the inconvenience caused by breaking the law. One is a more sophisticated mode of insurance that does not pay if people haven’t followed the law. This is one of the key ways in which compliance is ensured in the West. Not wearing a seat belt and in an accident – the insurance company will pay for neither the loss due to the accident nor medical treatment. While India evolves a more sophisticated insurance system, there may be a slightly more effective punishment that does not overload the already bursting at seams jail system. Confiscate the vehicle and keep it on the outskirts of the city. Jump a signal, not wear a helmet, talk on the phone while driving lose your vehicle for a period of time ranging from a few days to a few week. Let the owner of the vehicle, not the driver, go there to redeem it, for a fee. Nothing hurts like inconvenience. And, it is the fear of inconvenience, not the law, that will get people to comply.