ROAD TO NOWHERE
In 2008, when I was working at the High Commission of India in Singapore, P. K. Sreemathi, who was the Minister for Health in Kerala then, visited Singapore. During discussions with her counterpart in Singapore, she was asked the question as to what was the leading cause for death in Kerala. Her reply was prompt. “Road traffic accidents”, she said. Though she explained the steps that the Government was taking to reduce the mortality and morbidity on this score, the fact that accidents on the road, which are eminently avoidable, could be the cause for maximum number of Keralites dying in an year, shocked this writer.
It is disheartening to note that the situation has not improved even by a tiny bit even after a decade. The whole State mourned when Balabhaskar, one of the most talented exponents of violin, passed away after suffering grievous injuries in a car accident recently. Newspapers report, on a daily basis, the details of accidents that take place in various parts of the State. It is obvious that Keralites have not given this matter the seriousness that it deserves, resulting in more deaths and injuries occurring on the roads.
What are the causes of road traffic accidents? They are overspeeding, driving under the influence of alcohol, failure to wear helmets/ seat belts, lack of concentration due to sleepiness and non-observance of basic traffic rules. Each of these factors merit being discussed in detail to understand their impact.
Overspeeding happens when vehicles ply at speeds exceeding what is prescribed by the authorities in this regard. Motor vehicle department has put up cameras and speed sensors in all highways and they detect and report cases of overspeeding, which are dealt with penalty. Accidents happen not solely on account of vehicle being driven above the speed limit; they take place when overspeeding is combined with rash and negligent driving.
Many of the regular drivers know the places where cameras and sensors are installed and instinctively reduce the speed near those areas, only to step on the accelerator the moment they are outside that zone. A driver exceeds the speed limit with the intention of reaching his destination faster and when he does so he takes risks, which he believes would not hazard his safety. However, while doing so, he expects that other drivers on the road would react to his driving in a particular manner, mostly by staying out of the way of the vehicle. When that does not happen or if the reaction is slower than expected, an accident occurs. These types of accidents are most common with buses where the drivers believe in the dictum “might is right” and expect other vehicles and pedestrians to give way; but in the rare case where this does not happen with the alacrity that is required, a collision becomes inevitable.
Lack of access control
Highways in Kerala are different from those seen in other parts of the country and world for many reasons. The first is lack of access control which means that they are filled with vehicles of all types from hand pulled carts to the trailers carrying containers. Thus, not only is the vehicle density on the highways very high but their diversity poses bigger problems. The coming up of big malls, eating places and shops by the sides of the highways has ensured that there is an influx and egress of vehicles at very short intervals, thus reducing the speed that vehicles can generate. The bad consequence is that it prompts some drivers to press on the accelerator whenever the smallest opportunity presents itself, which can lead to accidents.
Driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs is a sure recipe for disaster. Alcohol and other drugs that cause changes in mood and result in hallucinations, reduce the driver’s reflexes and reaction time considerably. The driver is also prone to misjudging the speed of vehicles as well as distances. There have been concerted efforts by law enforcing authorities to check drunk driving in the State and this would certainly have a positive impact on casualties caused on this score. But it would ultimately vest on individual drivers to ensure that they do not drive a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or any drug that affects one’s concentration and awareness levels.
Of all the causes of mortality and morbidity due to accidents, the one that can be controlled easily are those caused on account of not wearing helmets and seat belts. It is the rule that every rider of a motor cycle/ scooter should wear a helmet, and not wearing one constitutes the most visible violation of law. However, one finds that a significant percentage of users of two-wheelers choose to discard helmets, thus not only breaking the law but also putting their own safety to risk.
It is an accepted fact that helmets can protect one from the risk of head injury, which is the most common cause of death and crippling injuries in accidents involving two-wheelers. The huge reluctance to use helmets can only be considered as an act of foolhardiness which places the life and good health of the riders at grave risk. The same applies to wearing of seat belts though one finds that contravention of the law is more the exception than the rule, probably because of the relative ease in complying with it.
Lack of concentration due to drowsiness brought about by sleep deprivation is a major cause for road traffic accidents world over. However, this is one area on which sufficient attention has not been placed in India. Sleep deprivation brought about by long working hours or lack of proper sleep at night tends to make a person feel drowsy and lethargic during day time. When such persons are required to drive vehicles, their concentration would waver after some time, leading to accidents.
Drowsiness of drivers brought about by sleep deprivation is the most common cause of accidents that happen in the highways during afternoon and late in the night. It is imperative that authorities start monitoring the sleep status of drivers in the same manner that they check their vision, to prevent accidents on this score.
Finally, one comes to the issue of non-observance of traffic rules and regulations. India has one of the toughest exams in the world when it comes to granting licences for driving vehicles. However, after obtaining a licence, many a driver behaves as if he has been given the authority to flout as many traffic rules as possible. This involves offences of relatively lighter consequence, such as non-conformity of lane discipline while driving to serious contraventions such as jumping of red light and violation of one way rules. Each of these transgressions carry the potential for an accident that is likely to snuff out a life in full bloom or cripple a person permanently.
Unlike diseases or natural calamities which are the other major causes for mortality and morbidity of human beings, road traffic accidents fall under the category of misfortunes that can be prevented with required amount of care and caution. If each of us take an oath that we would always follow the rules and desist from driving while feeling tired or after having alcohol, accidents would become a thing of the past. Like most things, good habits and practices in the regard have to be inculcated from an early age so that the next generation would see fewer tragedies on the roads.