Cars do not kill. Drivers do. But they are not the only ones. Corruption and self-serving collusion between contractors and municipal and state road authorities resulting in dangerous, cracked and cratered Indian roads are a major cause of accidents, says Kiron Kasbekar.
For some inexplicable reason, Ratan Tata's dream, the micro-priced Nano car has drawn completely unwarranted flak from environmentalists. For a discussion of some of these reasons, see Vivek Sharma's article on domain-b a couple of days ago (Why critics of the Tata small car are barking up the wrong tree)
Now the car, which is bound to give Tata Motors' rivals some sleepless nights, is being attacked from other angles.
There was this argument doing the rounds – that the car will result in more accidents. As far as the Nano being hit by or hitting another vehicle is concerned, Ratan Tata has clarified that the Nano has gone through necessary crash tests.
So another, slightly different, perhaps more insidious objection has cropped up – the car will be involved in accidents because it will be bought by people who don't know how to drive, and by people (those who switch from motorcycles) who have a tendency towards rash driving. The New York Times carried an article, 'Indians hit the road amid elephants', which discussed this problem at length.
The real killers
But cars don't kill, drivers do – and they are allowed to. It is futile blaming first-time drivers. Hundreds of thousands of expert drivers, who have been driving vehicles for years, are probably the rashest of motorists.
If you follow the traffic rules, people think you are an idiot. So, for example, if you refuse to budge when the traffic signal at a crossing is still red, you will be hassled by honking motorists behind you who want to zip ahead regardless.
If there is a maximum speed limit of 60 km per hour on highways, motorists feel deprived if they do not drive at over 80 kph. If there is a maximum speed limit of 80 km per hour on expressways, motorists feel unhappy if they do not drive at over 110 kph.
Zipping in and out of lanes as if a city road is a Formula One track is considered fine – it doesn't matter if others on the road are inconvenienced or endangered. There are too many drivers in India who think the law is meant to be broken, who are never arrested.
The environment changes attitudes. You will find non-resident Indians returning to India after living in America, Europe or the Gulf, where they have steered clear of violating traffic rules, who think nothing of flouting the law on Indian roads. They know they can get away with it.
And why blame only the motorists? Just look at the TV ads of car and motorcycle companies, and it is amazing how they encourage drivers to be reckless. These ads would be banned in Europe.
Fortunately, the Nano is one car whose advertisements are unlikely to boast speed and power as its strength. It just doesn't have that kind of power. It was designed like that. Rash driving is probably the main cause, but not the only one. But the driver-related causes are not the only reasons why accidents happen. There are many reasons why accidents happen.
On Indian roads, pedestrians and two-wheeler drivers can also be seen moving recklessly (though car, bus and truck drivers must take extra care to see that they don't kill or maim a pedestrian or cyclist even if the latter make a silly error of judgment). The poor maintenance of vehicles, especially trucks and buses, can result in vehicles going out of control.
Roads are disasters
And there is one major factor that is the direct or indirect cause of most accidents – and that is bad roads. But bad roads do not just happen; they are made.
The dangerous, cracked and cratered roads are the result of corruption and self-serving collusion between road building contractors and municipal and state authorities. The culprits are never caught.
Drivers have a choice: go headlong into potholes and risk their vehicles going out of control, or swerve suddenly to avoid the potholes and risk hitting other vehicles or people on the road. It is impossible to see the potholes until you are almost into them.
Road contractors and municipal officials should be prosecuted for poor road construction and poor maintenance. Except for a very small fraction, represented by the new expressways (such as the one connecting Mumbai and Pune), Indian roads are an unmitigated disaster.
It's no better than selling fake drugs
The criminal dereliction of duty by contractors and municipal officials is in the same class as non-provision of fire protection systems in a building causing death and destruction, or selling fake drugs that cause death and disability.
Municipal and state public works department engineers and officials are known to collude with contractors to lay anywhere between 25 and 50 per cent less thickness of tar / asphalt on roads in return for kickbacks. Is it a wonder that roads do not last beyond a few months?
Often drainage covers stand out of road surfaces or the surfaces are sunk in where the drains are – and motorists cannot see them until they hit them. Whose responsibility is it to assure smooth and safe roads?
Roads are left in a state of disrepair for months, sometimes over a year even in the big cities and even on main highways. With every passing day they pose bigger threats to people using the roads, whether they are riding in a car or walking on the pavement.
The problem is, nobody is bothered – except those who suffer in an accident, or their survivors. While drivers are clearly at fault in a large number of accidents, there is no doubt that the poor condition of the roads is a major contributing factor.
Often drivers get pulled out of their cars and get beaten up. But no mob thinks of marching to the contractors and municipal officials responsible for the dangerous roads and beating them up.
I am not recommending beating anybody up. But those responsible should be prosecuted and given severe punishment. The criminal neglect of the roads should be treated on par with selling fake drugs that cause death and disability.
After some gruesome accidents caused by drunken driving, the Mumbai police launched a drive against those driving under the influence of alcohol and others for speeding or otherwise violating traffic rules. That is good, but not enough.
It is high time the police (and the government) took action against those responsible for the dangerous condition of our roads. As a UN safety initiative put it perfectly – "Road safety is no accident". We have to work hard to make our roads safe.