It is not just the arrogant, rich and drunken drivers who cause road crashes . Even professors in IITs, the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, tend to drive or tended to drive rashly within the campus injuring students.
Dinesh Mohan, professor from IIT Delhi and the country’s foremost expert on road crashes, points out that when speed breakers were put in the campus in the capital to curb speed, professors complained that the bumps caused them pain in the back and neck. The director then told them that they should then ride bicycles. Indeed we forget that in the more simple days bicycles were everywhere on IIT campuses. Jairam Ramesh’s father, a teacher in IIT, used to be among the cyclists.
Dinesh Mohan did not mention about the old days but made the point about speed at a two-day workshop held in Pune recently by Road Safety Network and Parisar. India has the shameful record of accounting the highest number of road deaths in the whole world. While the government talks perpetually of bringing down the numbers, the toll keeps climbing. One never stops hearing about crashes. While I was on my way to Pune from Mumbai for the workshop came the news of an IAS officer in Kerala killing a journalist in a state of drunken driving late in the night, accompanied by a young woman. The issue could have been suppressed had it not been for the uproar from the journalistic community.
This is the greater tragedy. Those, like politicians and bureaucrats, tasked with bringing down the deaths on roads are themselves at least partly responsible. One often hears the refrain from politicians that with this new highway you will reach a particular place in just two hours or so. The worthies forget that the craze for speed they are promoting with the highway culture is a major contributor to the rapidly rising death toll. Far from lowering speeds, they are increasing highway speeds.
And the faulty construction of highways is also a major contributor to crashes, points out Dinesh Mohan and Geetam Tiwari, his colleague in IIT Delhi. The design of every new highway and old including the Mumbai Pune expressway is faulty, they point out. All these years drivers are being blamed for crashes but now it is being increasingly realised that engineers are also to blame in good measure because of faulty design. Indeed, the community is so overawed by their alleged superior intelligence that their virtual crimes have received little attention. Their design is faulty and torturous even in such simple things like steel benches at railway stations and seats in suburban trains in Mumbai. There is a desperate need to fix responsibility for the gross acts of negligence and may be corruption as well.
Though road crash investigation now requires a lot of scientific data and study, the government is not spending even a single crore of rupees on research, Dinesh Mohan points out.
The private sector has now entered research in crashes.JP Research, funded by automobile companies, is investigating cases on a large scale in Kolkata and other centres, working with the traffic police.. Its technical director Ravishankar Rajaraman made a presentation during the workshop showing a complicated accident scenario involving different vehicles at a traffic junction in Kolkata caught on cctv .camera. Several journalists in the audience too were foxed about the real cause even after seeing the crash footage. Ravishankar contended that therefore eye witnesses may not be all that reliable. That reminded me of Kurosowa’s acclaimed film Rashomon in which there are four different eye witness accounts of a murder and sexual assault. The point made is that truth could be relative , depending upon the viewer’s point of view.There are different ways of looking at life.
That is true. But very often in the crashes all evidence clearly suggests that the aggressive motorist and bad road design are to blame. The car lobby and its propaganda machine has succeeded in one respect, it has managed to suppress the bigger truth that increasing motorisation it has inflicted through public relations and manipulation in pursuit of profits is a major cause.
Innovations in road safety have come not from engineers but good hearted people in other professions. Ralph Nader, the scourge of the automobile lobby, he exposed its numerous crimes,was a lawyer and William Haddon was a doctor.
What our speed maniacs forget that driving at great speed has inherent problems. If you are going very fast you must keep a long distance from the car ahead of you, else the time available for you for safe braking is very short. But the automobile lobby has continuously propagated the speed myth, glorifying speed simply to induce buyers. But the tide and wheels are turning. The young even in India, not only in the West, are now not as much allured by car as before. So, car sales are going down and a whole gigantic manipulated exercise forged in league with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats is now in jeopardy. While there is much lamentation over declining car sales, there is little realisation of the irony that India accounts for only a tenth of the public transport buses it needs. Even our economists, academics are not bothered about these gross anomalies.
This is the problem of creating an economy in good measure around the automobile, a whole network of sectors associated with motor cars. It is possible to create many jobs and accelerate the economy through investments in bicycles, public transport and other sectors. The motor car need not be the major driver of the economy. Otherwise, the crash cycle will continue.
(Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book making a strong case for public transport, against car dominance).