The call of the United Nations, on the occasion of the First UN Global Road Safety Week, to reduce death and disability from accidents will have particular resonance in India. As a fast-developing country with high rates of motorisation, it is witnessing a steady increase in the number of people killed or seriously injured in accidents. This situation can be directly linked to the failure of the Central and State governments to undertake well-recognised remedial measures to match vehicle growth. The recently published draft report of an expert committee commissioned by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways identifies the absence of political will and the lack of coordination among official agencies as major causes of the high death and injury rates. Official statistics say 92,618 people died, and nearly half a million were injured, in road accidents in 2004. (The number of deaths on the road was about 6,000 in 1961.) It is important to note that the toll has been rising in absolute terms and also as a proportion of the population. The reasons are all too clear — the failure to invest in well-engineered roads, driver training, licensing, enforcement, and medical facilities for victims, despite higher revenues accruing to the state from taxes on automobiles and fuel.
The United Nations and the World Health Organisation have devoted special attention to the risk of accidents for young people aged 10 to 24. Road accidents are the leading cause of death in this age group internationally. For the very young in India, the dangers arise from the unpardonable neglect of safe transport to school. The loss of pedestrian facilities and the virtual absence of enforcement have made walking and cycling extremely hazardous for children. In the case of teenagers and youth, the challenge lies in persuading them to adopt safety measures such as the use of crash helmets and seat belts through education and enforcement. The bigger task is to overhaul the licensing, urban planning, and road safety machinery in the States. The expert committee has recommended the creation of an empowered National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board under an Act of Parliament. This agency will help revamp engineering and safety rules and oversee their implementation. There is no time to lose in creating such a professional agency. Enhanced safety funding is an imperative. Tenth Plan funding to combat tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS is understandably high, but road accidents that kill and maim a staggering number of people must get equal attention.
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