Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXII No. 13, October 16-31, 2022
According to a report released earlier in August by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Tamil Nadu suffered the second-highest number of road fatalities in 2021, with the state recording 15,384 casualties in 14,747 accidents. Titled Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India – 2021, the document also revealed that Chennai accounted for the highest number of road accident deaths amongst the metros in the country at 5,034 fatalities. It is significant that our city is at the top of this list for the third year in a row.
An analysis of the causes shows that most road accidents are due to overspeeding, accounting for 59.71 per cent of the total accidents. In line with the national trend, the majority of road deaths in the state – 8,259 fatalities accounting for 11.9 per cent of the the total – were classified as two-wheeler accidents.
The silver lining in the report is that the number of deaths due to drunken driving is on a decline in the state. While 236 people lost their lives while driving under the influence in 2020, only 15 such fatalities were recorded in 2021. It is possible that the restricted sale of alcohol during the pandemic helped bring down the number.
Ahead of the report’s publication, the Director General of Police C. Sylendra Babu affirmed in a quote to The Hindu in March that motor vehicle accidents are a challenge. “The Tamil Nadu police are taking several measures to reduce the motor vehicle accident rate,” he said. “Patrol vehicles have been provided to police personnel in the cities and districts for effective implementation in traffic rules and to reduce accidents.” Traffic experts ascribe the rise in the incidence of rash driving to leftover habits from the lockdown. They surmise that motorists grew accustomed to empty roads during the lockdown and continue to indulge in speedy and dangerous driving.
The report’s findings are not new for the city. Chennai’s track record in road safety is such a matter of concern that it would not be erroneous to flag it as a public health crisis. The causes too are chronic evils – overspeeding and rash driving are not recently acquired ills but ones that we have failed to cull. Distracted driving is also a bane in these tech-savvy times – it is not uncommon to see people using their cell phones while driving, impacting their own safety as well as the accompanying riders and fellow citizens who share the road.
Road design helps enforce ideal traffic behaviour to some extent. For instance, some city streets have implemented remedial measures like speed bumps to dissuade overspeeding. There is an increase too in traffic cameras that capture offences at busy junctions. However, the penalties for rash and dangerous driving are arguably due for an overhaul. We need a system that levies burdensome taxes for repeat offenders, perhaps in accordance with the class of vehicle being driven.
The usage of protective measures that prevent serious injuries and fatalities – such as helmets, child restraints and seatbelts – needs to be enforced as well. According to a study, only half of Indian motorists use helmets; only 45 per cent of these wear them properly.
There is, of course, the question of the quality of roads as well – a point particularly familiar to most of us in these times when public works and weather are wreaking havoc on the streets. Our Indian traffic system does not have designated lanes for different vehicles – cyclists and motorists share the road equally alongside cars, buses and trucks. Poor quality roads with their potholes and bumps make it that much harder to navigate safely. With pedestrians forced onto the roads as well for want of proper footpaths, the roads in their current condition are not designed for the safety of their users. For instance, it is not always that a two-way road has dividers to keep traffic moving in designated lanes.
In all this, the civic sense of the citizen cannot be given a pass. Policies and their implementation count for little if traffic rules are held in scant regard by the people. Public spaces, especially roads, are a collective responsibility. Not only do we have our own safety to consider but that of other users, including non-motorists such as pedestrians, public transport patrons and cyclists, who have an equal claim to the space. We can do better, Chennai.