This week marks the 2-year anniversary of the passage of the landmark Motor Vehicles Amendment Act 2019. Recently Mr. Nitin Gadkary, the Minister for Road Transport and Highways, referring to the latest road accident data in the parliament, claimed that road safety has improved in 2020 pointing to the 13% drop in fatalities to an eleven year low of 1.32 lakh. However, it would not be lost even on the Minister that most, if not all of this, can be attributed to the reduction in traffic volumes due to pandemic-induced lockdowns rather than any systemic improvement in road safety.
This is not an indictment of the Minister or the law that was overhauled keeping in mind India’s abysmal road safety record. He was instrumental in pushing the Amendment Act through the Parliament two years ago against stiff resistance from States and various trade unions as well as the public outcry against what seemed like a draconian increase in penalties — which having been unaltered since 1988 were indeed in need of a commensurate increase. The steadily rising deaths and injuries on the roads in India reflecting not just the expanding road network but also the rise in vehicles and their speeds, has taken India to the top of the list of countries with the highest road traffic trauma. This has not only attracted the attention of the Supreme Court which has appointed a Committee to issue periodic diktats to the States, but also genuinely been a cause of concern for Mr. Gadkari who has on numerous occasions lamented the needless loss of life on the roads he seeks to build and who has admitted to missing the goal “by 2020, halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents” — a commitment made by India as a signatory to the UN Brasilia Declaration — as one of his biggest failures.
While the Minister has continued to support this cause in the face of opposition from even BJP-ruled states and pushed a slew of Central legislation (through the rule making provisions in the Act), unfortunately institutional and systemic changes have lagged behind. He has also promoted an increase in national speed limits, a move seen by experts as being retrograde to the cause of road safety.
One such critical institution needed is a National Road Safety Board (NRSB), whose creation is now possible thanks to a clause added in the amended act. This was a much needed addition and had been tried earlier with no success. The government appointed “Sundar Committee” way back in 2005 had recommended the creation of a National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board in its 2007 report and indeed a bill for its creation was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2010. The Parliamentary Committee that scrutinized the bill however opposed the creation of “yet another institution” adding to the plethora of agencies already in existence. What the Committee missed is that most of these existing agencies do not have any real expertise in matters of road safety, a subject that has been extensively studied for almost half a century in the West where it was realized that road safety will improve only when supported by policies that are data-driven and evidence-based. Road safety is at odds with development policies (expanding the network of high-speed expressways for instance where the death toll is significantly higher), the automobile industry (which has a long history of pushing back on road safety features which increase vehicle costs but are not drivers of sales) and the public (which bitterly resents stricter licencing and enforcement). And while implementing road safety features in road designs or vehicle technology will save the nation money in the long run — current estimates of the economic burden of road accidents having been pegged at 3% of GDP — they cost both time and money upfront and militate against existing systems and vested interests. Public opposition to road safety measures — such as wearing helmets and seat-belts and speed limits — are not unique to India and makes enforcement politically unpalatable. The latter is the reason that States have continued to push back on the stricter provisions of the Central law, with large States such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu refusing to notify new penalties even two years after the passage of the Act. And this is precisely where a National Road Safety Board can help provide independent, evidence-based recommendations on all matters related to road safety — from standards for roads, vehicles and safety equipment, to enforcement guidelines, including the level of penalties and post-trauma care systems. For this to happen the Board has to be free from influence of both the executive and the various agencies under it, as well as the industry. Like any robust regulatory body, it must have the autonomy to undertake studies, have access to data and have the analytical tools to come to its conclusions. It must have the ability to hire the right people. All this requires financial and decision-making autonomy. The yet to be born NRSB has to evolve into an institution of repute, able to provide the best road safety advice in a free and fair manner. The advice need not be binding, but as in the case of the National Transport Safety Board of the U.S, it’s recommendations must warrant a formal response from the Ministry. Creating such an institution starts with the appointment of a Chairperson of high standing in the road safety community, a process the Ministry must now undertake. More critically, the rules for the NRSB must build in the autonomy and independence of the Board keeping it at “arm’s length from the executive”, a basic tenet of robust regulatory institutions. The process for appointment of the Chairperson had been recommended by the Sundar Committee — by way of a selection committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary — to ensure a fair process. Unfortunately, most of the carefully considered recommendations of that committee are missing from the draft NRSB rules published by the Ministry last year. There is still a chance for Mr. Gadkari to create a lasting institution that will help to bring the much needed scientific approach to road safety, the only way for us to possibly achieve the missed goal of reducing road traffic deaths by 50% by the new 2030 deadline — and set right his self-admitted biggest failure