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Another annual Road Safety Week is around the corner, this time from January 11 to 17, and the Supreme Court has set the stage for it. State governments may not be giving road safety top priority, but a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud has taken it up seriously again, with a direction on January 6, that steps be taken to institute electronic monitoring to enforce provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act.
The order by CJI Chandrachud and Justices P S Narasimha and J B Pardiwala asked Justice AM Sapre, the chairperson of the Supreme Court Committee on Road Safety, to convene a meeting on the issue. It is of particular significance to Tamil Nadu, which has a troubling record on road safety in spite of attempts at administrative reform. The court’s review of road safety is based on the case filed by orthopaedician Dr S. Rajasekharan of Coimbatore several years ago.
Several recent gruesome accidents, like that of IT engineer Shobana on a badly maintained road, and five of a family who perished in a highway pile-up of five vehicles near Cuddalore, have raised the question: can roads be made safe at all and who is at fault for road accident deaths.
Policing is also tilted towards the flow of vehicles, rather than ensuring orderly usage of road space by all road users. Encroachments are allowed to create hazardous conditions
What is electronic monitoring?
Electronic monitoring, which involves multiple tools including CCTV cameras, is provided for in the amended Motor Vehicles Act of 2019 under Section 136 (A) as follows: (1) The State Government shall ensure electronic monitoring and enforcement of road safety in the manner provided under sub-section (2) on national highways, state highways, roads or in any urban city within a state which has a population up to such limits as may be prescribed by the Central Government.
(2) The Central Government shall make rules for the electronic monitoring and enforcement of road safety including speed cameras, closed-circuit television cameras, speed guns, body wearable cameras and such other technology.
“Body wearable camera” under law is explained as a ‘mobile audio and video capture device worn on the body or uniform of a person authorised by the state government.”
Evidently, no aspect of active enforcement has made a big dent in the number or severity of accidents in Tamil Nadu, whether in urban centres or highways. Moreover, the officers of the state have not taken seriously a provision of the same MV Act Section 198 A, dealing with failure of agencies, consultants and contractors, which is to establish negligence by agencies and officials as the cause of accidents.
On electronic monitoring, few are afraid of enforcement based on CCTV, even in central parts of Chennai. Policing is also tilted towards the flow of vehicles, rather than ensuring orderly usage of road space by all road users. Encroachments are allowed to create hazardous conditions.
No strict patrolling
Although it is common to see police patrol cars, the approach of the personnel is to ensure law and order, with weak emphasis on traffic discipline. Each patrol car can theoretically function as an electronic monitoring unit, with a built-in camera that records violations and issues challans, but this does not take place.
Expensive CCTV equipment placed at road intersections is often faulty or obviously broken, and the police frequently rely on private CCTV footage along roads to establish the cause when some major incident takes place. Some private vehicles have fitted dashboard cameras (dash cams) to record road traffic and offenders, in order to protect themselves from liability. These cameras cost as little as Rs 4,000 onwards.
In a recent trend, social media users have been taking photos and tagging the Greater Chennai Traffic Police on alleged violations, including illegible number plates, obstructive parking, rash driving, abandoned vehicles and so on. After an initial phase where the GCTP replied with photos on Twitter of fine receipts in such cases, the police has now become more cautious and only acknowledges that it will investigate the matter. In one case, where a vehicle with government marking is seen driving the wrong way, the police wondered publicly what the offence was, provoking derision on social media.
Electronic monitoring here could instil some discipline among motorists, with pedestrian-actuated signals available to get motorists to stop. The first pedestrian-actuated signals were “tried out” in the 1990s, but given up without fanfare
Cameras for pedestrians
Pedestrians constitute a major section of road accident victims, 12.2% nationally, but Chennai’s official policies give them little room. There are few enforced zebra crossings, and where there is no manual police intervention, vehicles do not stop for walkers. Electronic monitoring here could instil some discipline among motorists, with pedestrian-actuated signals available to get motorists to stop. The first pedestrian-actuated signals were “tried out” in the 1990s, but given up without fanfare.
While pedestrians have little defence against motorised traffic even at designated crossing points, Tamil Nadu’s overall record of 55,682 road traffic accidents in 2021, and staggering number of deaths of two-wheeler riders and accidents all involve buses.
The Supreme Court issued directions earlier on the constitution of a National Road Safety Board, State Road Safety Council and District Road Safety Committees (RSC).
On March 29, 2022, Justice Sapre wrote to the Secretary of the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) and the Chief Secretaries of States and Union Territories to standardise the membership of the District Committees, by including the District Collector, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Chief Medical Officer of Health, Executive Engineer (Roads) of PWD, Regional Office representative of MoRTH, NHAI Project Director, Executive Officer of local body, one NGO, the RTO, and State Highways member serving as Member-Secretary. More members could be co-opted by states but the stipulated members should not be dropped.
Chief Minister M K Stalin could, coinciding with the Road Safety Week this year, direct the Police and Transport authorities to compile decisions of the District RSCs and publish them on the internet. This would make the agencies accountable and bring them into the public realm for monitoring. The performance of individual districts and their failures would become self-evident, and give the public an opportunity to raise complaints.
The problem of bad drivers, badly maintained vehicles, poorly designed roads, potholes, non-working signals, absence of proper signage to warn motorists of danger, lack of protection for pedestrians and cyclists are all bound to continue.
In a silver lining, the three-judge bench of the SC has asked Justice Sapre to convene a meeting with the Union government’s Transport Secretary, the Additional Solicitor General and the court’s amicus curiae Gaural Agarwal to frame modalities for implementation of electronic monitoring with specific guidelines for each state, within a two-week time-frame. This offers the hope that further pressure can be brought on state administrations to enforce the road safety law rigorously, and stop the high rates of death and disability that have made Indian roads globally notorious
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