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Above: Delhi Police issuing a challan for traffic violation/Photo: Twitter

India accounts for 11 percent of global road fatalities with rules being flouted regularly and with impunity. What are the potholes which prevent a smooth ride in our country?    

By Papia Samajdar

Last week, a cab driver rammed his taxi into a private vehicle. Such was his hurry to take his passengers to the airport that he didn’t even bother to stop. When the police caught up with him, he arrogantly denied his fault. The police looked helpless and could only talk about the mess created by taxis, autos and e-rickshaws.

Unfortunately, not all accidents are limited to squabbles. According to the Delhi traffic police, in 2018, more than 6,000 people were injured on Delhi’s roads and 1,657 accidents were fatal. Though the number of accidents has reduced, compared to previous years, fatal ones have gone up by 1.26 percent.

According to a report released by International Road Federation, 1.47 lakh people are killed due to road accidents annually in India. This means that India alone accounts for 11 percent of the global road fatalities. In fact, in 2018, the largest number of challans were issued for not wearing helmets—1,193,558. This was followed by challans for improper parking—1,164,348; not wearing seat belts (6,25,468), dangerous driving (2,34,639) and jumping the light (211,955). Delhi tops the list of traffic violations.

According to the Delhi Traffic Police, there are 82 offences, liable to be challaned. This includes some very common ones such as overtaking, honking, use of coloured lights of vehicles, violation of stop line, triple riding on a two-wheeler, using mobiles while driving, etc.

The offences fined the most in Delhi in 2018 were riding (including pillion riding) without helmets, improper parking, signal jumping, dangerous driving and driving without seatbelts. The traffic police collected more than Rs 100 crore in 2018 from 64,79,854 challans.

However, except for a few traffic violations, most offences are either under-reported or not fined at all. For example, not a single challan was issued to drivers using halogen lights. In fact, one out of every 10 accidents is caused due to the glare of headlights. The use of coloured headlights is prohibited under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. However, authorities have not notified the exact specifications of headlights which can be allowed to be retro-fitted. In fact, Point 97 of the Delhi Motor Vehicle Rules 1998, says that no appliance should be fitted on a motor vehicle which can cause inconvenience or danger to others on the road. It also restricts the use of coloured lights in front or on top of any vehicle.

Even the Supreme Court, on January 9, 2019, ruled that there should be no alteration to the registered specification of a vehicle. Citing the amended provision of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, it observed that its “clear intent” was that vehicles cannot be altered from their original specifications as per the manufacturer for the purpose of certificate of registration. The judgment, therefore, makes after-purchase modification of tyres, alloy wheels and horns illegal. However, it does not say if this judgment holds good only for new vehicles or for older ones too. There is also ambiguity on the kind of modification.

This has led to a plethora of choices for the consumer. Cars usually come with halogen-fitted bulbs, which are easily replaceable with high intensity discharge (HID) lights or light emitting diode (LED) ones. Both are extremely bright and often white or bluish white instead of yellow like halogen beams. Now vehicles with xenon and HID-fitted headlights are being produced directly by manufacturers.

Another violation is that of multi-toned horns which are easily available in the market. In 2017, the Central Pollution Control Board had banned pressure, multi-toned and musical horns in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Lucknow. It also said in its notices to the State Pollution Control Board that no driver should be allowed to honk needlessly or continuously in silence zones. In 2016, the NGT banned pressure horns in Delhi, citing noise pollution from them. The Delhi Traffic Police has identified 60 stretches where horns cannot be used. However, implementation remains a challenge as it is low on the priority of violations. The police is also ill-equipped to measure the decibel level of the honk.

Another hiccup is the aftermarket auto component segment in India. It constitutes about $8 billion and is a largely unregulated sector with retail sellers and wholesale hubs. Ambiguity in defining the legal requirements in retro-fitted gadgets means that unaware customers have a ready supply of illegal gadgets.

The laxity in traffic rules also relates to the type of vehicles plying on Delhi roads. An estimated four million old vehicles in the National Capital Region were banned in 2014 following an order from the National Green Tribunal and upheld by the Supreme Court. It said that petrol vehicles more than 15 years old and diesel vehicles more than 10 years old should be banned as they contribute heavily to air pollution. But till November 2018, only 3,196 had been impounded, a mere 0.079 percent of the total number rightly banned.

Another flouting that takes place is the use of mobiles while driving. A study by Savelife Foundation showed that almost 50 percent of respondents use their mobile phones while driving in Delhi. But the traffic police booked only 48 challans per day for this offence. Other hiccups to a smooth ride are lack of proper driving skills and lack of awareness of traffic rules. Corrective measures need to be taken countrywide to overhaul the process of issuing a driver’s licence. Apart from fines and challans, stricter measures such as suspension of licences should be enforced. This also calls for proper training of enforcing authorities.

Another issue is the lacuna in traffic enforcement. According to Gaurav Dubey, programme manager, mobility and air pollution, at the Centre for Science and Environment: “This happens often due to lack of adequate staff and lack of appropriate technology. Globally, and even in India in cities like Kolkata, monitoring traffic violations through CCTV and issuing automatic challans through ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) technology is becoming the norm. Given that there may never be adequate staff to monitor traffic violations manually, faster adoption of appropriate technology will help in ensuring road safety. This would re­quire CCTV infrastructure, ANPR technology as well as a robust back-end database linking registration numbers to updated physical addresses and mobile numbers.”

However, some states have shown the way forward. Between January 2017 and March 2018, 32,000 vehicle licences were cancelled across Tamil Nadu for violation of traffic rules. Noticing that fines and challans did not have enough impact, cities in Tamil Nadu decided to take stricter action. Since January 2017, the state has suspended 7,000 licences of those talking on mobile phones while driving. This resulted in a decline of road accidents by 2.4 percent. In 2018, Chandigarh procured 11 cameras as part of their “Divya Drishti” camera system. The high-resolution, internet-enabled night vision cameras were installed at vantage points to curb traffic violations, keep an eye on corruption and ensure road safety in the city.

But Delhi is trying to clean up its road safety act. In 2018, the Delhi government notified the Delhi Road Safety Policy to ensure safety for all road users. Focusing on four Es—education, enforcement, engineering and emergency care—the policy aims to reduce fatalities by 30 percent in the next two years. It plans to regulate and accredit driver training institutes, road audits, safe pedestrian crossing and road safety awareness drives.

The Delhi Master Plan 2021 aims to develop the multi-modal public transport system, along with safe passage for cyclists and pedestrians. It also aims to use innovative management techniques to resolve traffic problems. The Master Plan states that parking is a consumer commodity and private cars should be parked on fully paid rented or owned land. To curtail the ever-rising parking demand, the number of vehicles should be restricted. This should be done through pricing policies instead of increasing the provision for parking.

The Road Transport and Safety Bill, introduced in Parliament in 2016, is in the public domain for comments. If passed, it would replace the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.

It borrows the best practices from six most advanced nations, and aims to save two lakh lives in the first five years.

This includes holding both the manufacturer and the driver liable for faulty manufacturing and rash and negligent driving. The punishment can be anything from a hefty fine to cancellation of the licence or imprisonment. The Bill, however, remains ambiguous about the implementation of the laws and does not hold faulty road design and planning accountable.

It is obvious that there are many potholes to be navigated for a safer India.

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