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Road accidents have earned India a dubious distinction. With over 130,000 deaths annually, the country has overtaken China and now has the worst road traffic accident rate worldwide.
A truck accident in India's central state of Madhya Pradesh
This has been revealed by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its first ever Global Status Report on Road Safety. The report pointed to speeding, drunk driving and low use of helmets, seat belts and child restraints in vehicles as the main contributing factors.
Every hour, 40 people under the age of 25 die in road accidents around the globe. According to the WHO, this is the second most important cause of death for 5 to 29 year olds.
A bus fell from a bridge into a dry riverbed in northwestern India last month, killing at least 26 students and teachers on board
In India alone, the death toll rose to 14 per hour in 2009 as opposed to 13 the previous year. The total number of deaths every year due to road accidents has now passed the 135,000 mark, according to the latest report of National Crime Records Bureau or NCRB.
While trucks and two-wheelers were responsible for over 40 per cent of deaths, peak traffic during the afternoon and evening rush hours is the most dangerous time to be on the roads.
Drunken driving is a major factor
The NCRB report further states that drunken driving was a major factor for road accidents. Joint Commissioner of Police Maxwell Perreira maintains that there has to be a change in drivers' mindsets.
Trucks are responsible for many road accidents in India
"Most of the city accidents are not necessarily out of drunken driving," says Pereira. "But 99 per cent of the accidents, the fatal accidents that occur outside the cities are due to drunken driving and there is no check on this kind of drunken driving. Unfortunately, truck drivers think they are fully armed to drive on the highway when they are fully drunk! Until and unless this country comes up with a new method of checking drunkenness on the highways, I don't think these fatalities can be lessened."
Inefficient law enforcement
Prince Singhal, founder of the Campaign Against Drunken Driving (CADD), a decade-old movement with support across the country, says the increase in fatal accidents only proves the lack of concern on the part of state governments and police towards the problem of drunken driving.
"It's growing day by day because liquor is a state subject and its happening everywhere in the country, not just Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and metro towns. There is an ineffective law, there is no judicial procedure, there is no enforcement by the police, no specific segment where they can book people under drunk driving."
India is experiencing a car boom
Campaigns against drunken driving have not proved effective. And the increasing number of prosecutions for drunken driving has also not been a deterrent. But Singhal is determined to change this.
"Now things are going to change because we met government representatives and we filed a white paper policy on road safety. So there is going to be national council which is going to be formed very soon in the country. The matter is in parliament and it is already approved by the cabinet. And very soon you will see a specific body on road safety is going to be formed."
The time for action is now: Road deaths increased by nearly 40 per cent between 2003 and 2008 in India, and the more progressive and developed states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are the ones most affected.
Road safety experts also warn that the real numbers of fatalities could be much higher since many cases are not even reported. There is no estimate as to how many people injured in road accidents die a few hours or days after the accident. And their deaths are then no longer linked to road traffic accidents.
Author: Murali Krishnan (New Delhi)
Editor: Grahame Lucas