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Sunita Narain: Roads are meant for walking

Sunita Narain 

Sunita Narain

In India, traffic accidents are not on the health agenda. It's high time the agenda was changed. When Gopinath Munde, the Union minister for rural development, met with a tragic accident on the road in Delhi, the issue was highlighted. Even so, there is little understanding of the seriousness of the problem or of why India - which has just begun to motorise - needs to take action, and fast.

For me, the news of the minister's death was particularly distressing. It hit me that seven months ago I was on the same road - south Delhi's Aurobindo Marg - when my cycle was hit by a reversing car. I was lucky that some good Samaritans picked me up and rushed me to the same Jai Prakash Narayan Apex Trauma Centre at AIIMS where Mr Munde was taken. The same wonderful group of doctors, who tried their best to resuscitate Mr Munde, worked to repair my hands and nose and stop internal bleeding. I was fortunate - I survived. But Mr Munde, who had much to do in his life, did not make it. This waste of human lives because of sheer apathy and negligence should make us angry. It should make us change the way we design our roads, enforce traffic rules and, most importantly, take responsibility for our driving.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists traffic-related accidents as one of the top health agendas of the world. It says that road accidents globally are the leading cause of death among young people between 15 and 29 years of age. Worse, it is in our part of the world - low- and middle-income countries with much fewer vehicles - that 90 per cent of the accidents occur. We have started to drive, but without the roads and laws that make for safety. The WHO also finds that nearly half the people who die in road accidents are pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists - vulnerable road users.

In Delhi, the traffic police database of accidents shows a small downward trend, which is good news. But it also shows that of the 1,600 people who were killed in 2013 in traffic accidents, as many as 673 were pedestrians. Their only fault was that they did not realise that the city does not give them the right to walk. The vulnerable road users - cyclists, pedestrians, cycle-rickshaw users and motorcyclists - made up 81 per cent of those who died. The situation is the same in all our cities. Clearly, our roads are not meant for anybody who is not in a large powerful vehicle.

It is not surprising that 60 per cent of these accidents in Delhi were the result of what the police classified as the driver's fault - in other words, overspeeding, disobeying traffic rules and driving dangerously. In most cases, the vehicle that hits someone is never caught.

In my case, the car reversed in the wrong lane, hit me and fled. I had no time to take down the vehicle number. There are no CCTV cameras in Delhi that capture accidents in real time. There is no way to catch, let alone convict, the culprit.

This is not all. We are not even designing our roads for safe use. We cannot walk; nor can we cycle in our cities. We cannot even cross the road safely to board a bus. Roads are engineered for cars. In this way, cars, which transport less than 13 per cent of Delhi's daily commuters, take 90 per cent of road space. We also ensure that the footpaths - where they exist - are the only common and public space available to all - vendors, bus stops, public toilets and, of course, car-parking space. So you can do everything, but you cannot walk.

The agenda for change is not impossible. First, we need to urgently amend the outdated Motor Vehicles Act; it needs to provide effective deterrence against illegal or irresponsible driving. At present, the penalty against misdemeanour is ~100. Just think: how will this stop anyone from parking cars on footpaths or from not driving irresponsibly?

Second, we need to adopt new technologies for the purpose of on-road surveillance and to ensure compliance. Delhi has some 100 cranes to tow away illegally parked vehicles. The rest of the world, which has taken to driving, pays the cost of enforcement, from installing parking meters to on-road CCTV cameras.

Third, we should urgently fix the registration database of vehicles so that those who drive irresponsibly know they will be found, caught and penalised. This can only happen through annual vehicle fitness and registration systems.

Fourth, we need to make footpaths and cycle lanes mandatory in road design. The Indian Road Congress guidelines for road construction have been revised to incorporate pedestrians' needs. But these are not mandatory. It is in nobody's interest to follow the signs.

The bottom line is: if we are rich enough to drive, we have to be rich enough to be responsible for our driving.
Twitter: @sunitanar

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First Published: Sun, June 22 2014. 22:44 IST