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The recently released data for road accidents across India present the shocking picture of Tamil Nadu topping all States in the rise of traffic accidents in 2021 over the previous year, going up from 46,443 to 57,090. Chennai is the mega city that fares the worst on accidents and road safety. The state also recorded the most two-wheeler related fatalities across the country.
Traffic accident data, which comprises mostly road accidents but also includes railway and railway crossing mishaps, come as a staggering challenge to the DMK government. Although the rise in incidents, reported by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) based on statistics submitted by State governments, could be partly attributed to the flush of activity after the lockdown COVID-19 year, the resurgence is also ascribed to the lack of remedial action in the State, which has had a history of populism when it comes to enforcing road rules.
The data highlight the cold reality of Tamil Nadu facing the brunt of accidents, suffering high fatalities and having to manage the large burden of people with disabilities caused by accidents. All these elements impact the economic productivity of the State.
Maximum 2-wheeler deaths
In a grim statistic, Tamil Nadu recorded the largest number of deaths among users of two-wheeled vehicles with a massive 8,259 killed, followed only by a backward State like Uttar Pradesh which witnessed 7,429 deaths, accounting for 11.9% and 10.3% of total deaths in this category respectively.
The data highlight the cold reality of Tamil Nadu facing the brunt of accidents, suffering high fatalities and having to manage the large burden of people with disabilities caused by accidents. All these elements impact the economic productivity of the State
Interestingly, when M. Karunanidhi became Chief Minister after M.G. Ramachandran, he decided not to enforce the helmet rule, in spite of dire caution from neurosurgeon Dr. B. Ramamurthy, leaving it to the good sense of motorists. It is well known in road safety literature that enforcement is the first choice, and education alone cannot bring about behavioural change.
Another group of road users facing deadly risk in Tamil Nadu are — paradoxically — those using buses. During 2021, as many as 11.9% (551 out of 4,622) of fatal road accidents due to buses across the country were reported from the State. In this case, again, it is only Uttar Pradesh that fares worse at 28.9% (1,337 out of 4,622). These numbers do not capture the thousands who are left injured in bus accidents, left to handle their disability and loss themselves, and expecting no more than paltry compensation, with long delays, for their staggering losses.
As a time series, during 2021, the highest number of accidents occurred in January, and here too, the maximum number were in Tamil Nadu — 13.2% of total accidents reported. The data point to the most unsafe period as 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for accidents, and here too, the State is in the lead: Tamil Nadu at 14,415 cases, Madhya Pradesh 9,798 and Kerala 6,765.
National Highways run through several States, but some fare worse than others when it comes to road accidents. Here again, Tamil Nadu has the dubious distinction of being among the top of the list. The maximum fatalities in road accidents on National Highways, the NCRB report says, took place in Uttar Pradesh (13.5% at 7,212 out of 53,615 deaths) followed by Tamil Nadu (10.0% and 5,360 deaths), Maharashtra (7.5% and 3,996 deaths), Rajasthan (6.8% and 3,653 deaths) and Andhra Pradesh (6.7% and 3,602 deaths).
State governments and police officials would argue that these shocking levels of accidents and mortality are the result of high economic activity that involves more vehicles, more kilometres driven and new road building. While this may be partly true, the high fatalities and overall rising road risk reflects lack of strong police enforcement, indulgence towards violations, bad road infrastructure and maintenance, poor driver training and weak hospital infrastructure to handle emergencies.
Singara Chennai, children unsafe
The verdict from the States’ own data is clear — Chennai’s roads are among the most lawless when it comes to traffic. The city accounted for 9.1% (5,034 of 55,442 cases) of total road accidents in 53 mega cities, followed by Delhi with 8.1% (4,505 cases) and Bengaluru recording 5.8% (3,213 cases). Distressingly, fatal road accidents cost 998 lives in Chennai during the review year, compared to 1,172 in Delhi.
Chief Minister M.K. Stalin should worry that the failure to perform active traffic policing in the city and its growing suburbs spread across Kancheepuram, Thiruvallur and Chengalpattu districts, and the broken state of infrastructure in interior areas is costing people heavily.
It is a matter of great concern that children attending educational institutions in Tamil Nadu are particularly unsafe. Uttar Pradesh, followed by Tamil Nadu, reported 24.4% and 9.4% of total deaths due to road accidents near schools, colleges and other educational institutes in urban areas respectively, the NCRB report points out.
Whither District Safety panels?
Ironically, it was an orthopaedic surgeon from Tamil Nadu, Dr. Rajasekaran from Ganga Hospital, Coimbatore, who took the road safety crisis to the Supreme Court years ago and the court issued a series of directives to be implemented by the State governments. It formed a Committee on Road Safety under the Chairmanship of Justice K. S. Radhakrishnan, a former judge of the Court, to make recommendations and carry the remedial measures forward. The Union government also passed an amended Motor Vehicles Act in 2019, with higher penalties, which made the populist States baulk even more at enforcing the provisions.
The reporting methods of the NCRB make it clear that it has no provision to investigate and record official failures, such as bad road design, poor construction, potholes, absence of footpaths and lack of signage which cause accidents, although such maladministration is punishable under the new MV Act. There are no data for bad road infrastructure causing accidents in the report, while the majority of accidents are attributed broadly to “overspeeding” with no finer detail.
For Tamil Nadu, the priority now has to be to make the 20-member State Road Safety Council led by the Transport Minister responsible for progressive reduction in accidents, fatalities and injuries each month
As the data for 2021 show, the record of road fatalities in India, at the rate of one person dying every three minutes, remains unchanged since the court’s intervention in 2014. So indifferent was the Union of India that the Committee formed by the court was not even provided sufficient infrastructure to do its job, and States failed to cooperate, a trend recorded in his order by Justice M.B. Lokur.
For Tamil Nadu, the priority now has to be to make the 20-member State Road Safety Council led by the Transport Minister responsible for progressive reduction in accidents, fatalities and injuries each month. There must be accountable metrics at the level of Districts (which have statutory District Road Safety Councils) and traffic enforcement machinery led by the Police must be made accountable.
The National Road Safety Policy, the Tamil Nadu Road Safety Policy, and Chennai’s Non-Motorised Transport Policy hold little meaning, when they bring no change to the status quo. There can be no excuse for the DMK government for the dismal performance of the official machinery on road safety during 2022.
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