Are Road Safety Laws In India Letting Our Children Down?
Over 20 children died and dozens more were left injured after a truck collided with their school bus in Uttar Pradesh’s Etah district on the morning of January 19. This horrifying incident is only the latest deadly accident in a country which has one of the poorest road safety records and standards in the world.
Various reasons have been put forward as possible causes for the accident – overspeeding by the truck driver, rash driving by the bus driver and poor visibility due to the dense fog in the area. However, none of these causes touch upon the most glaring problem of all – poor road behaviour, inadequate enforcement and a legislative framework that does not take children into account.
The result – almost 43 children below the age of 18 are killed in road crashes every single day on our roads.
Read More: 43 Children Die In Road Accidents Everyday
“The increasing number of incidents involving the deaths of children in road crashes reveals the existing policy gaps with regard to road safety, especially the safety of vulnerable road users like children. Presently, the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, the sole legislation governing road safety in India, has no provisions to address the safety of children,” says Saji Cherian, Director, Operations, SaveLIFE Foundation.
Non-existent Child Safety Norms
When it comes to regulating school buses, the only guidelines that exist were those issued by the Supreme Court in 1985 . Again, the problem here lies in the enforcement, as these guidelines are “not strictly adhered to by school administrations and their non-adherence is not followed up with stringent punishment”, according to Saji Cherian.
The Supreme Court guidelines require drivers of school buses to have a minimum experience of 5 years without a record of previous traffic offences, an attendant to ensure the safety of children, not more children than the seating capacity and provisions for first aid and drinking water, among other things.
Another problem in India is the lackadaisical attitude to road safety, even by the most well-meaning parents. Travelling with children seated on front seats or on their parents’ laps with no harness or seat-belt is never questioned.
“People may wear seatbelts, but mothers continue to put children on their laps. This puts them (the children) at risk and means that the responsibility of law and enforcement does not end with putting on a seatbelt. This is something that we need to realise,” said Dr. Shankar Vishwanath, Consultant to the Mumbai Traffic Police and Advisor to the National Highways Commission, while raising this point at the NDTV Diageo Road To Safety Conclave earlier this month.
Compare this to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendations which specifies the use of child restraint systems for children under a certain age, height and weight, and and restricts children from sitting in the front seat.
Child seats are widely considered to be an extremely effective method of ensuring the safety of children, who are the most vulnerable to serious injuries and deaths in collisions, seated in vehicles. The WHO’s Global Report on the Status on Road Safety 2015 says that child seats can decrease the risk of death in a crash by 70 per cent for infants and 80 per cent for small children.
Unfortunately, the Motor Vehicles Act does not even make a mention of these which means that India does not even come close to meeting global norms for vehicular child safety.
With regard to children on two-wheelers, the law, once again, is silent. Around 76 per cent of the traffic on India’s urban roads is composed of two-wheelers, which means that while a significant number of children presumably travel on such vehicles, the law does not take them into account. While helmets are necessary for all vehicles, the Motor Vehicles Act does not have any specifications for child helmets, and thus the provision is not implemented for children.
In fact, several state-level motor vehicle rules, like those in Tamil Nadu, have further diluted this helmet requirement, by specifically excluding children from having to wear helmets.
The Road Forward
The good news is that the proposed Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill 2016 does take a few steps forward in terms of improving the legislative coverage for child safety. If passed, it will make helmets for children riding on two-wheelers and child restraint systems or seat belts for children below the age of 14. Additionally, it requires the central government to issue rules for children under the age of 4 travelling on two-wheelers and proposes a fine of ₹1,000 for instances where a child is found travelling without any kind of restraint on the driver or guardian.
“While the Amendment Bill has new provisions on the safety of children, this needs to be further strengthened with provisions regarding adult accountability of children during the commute,” says Cherian.
However, this Bill, which proposes crucial amendments to the existing archaic Act, has been pending for review with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport for nearly 6 months now and there seems to be no definitive timeline for its passage in spite of repeated ministerial assurances.
While the swift passage of this bill can help, it alone will not be enough to improve safety for children on India’s roads. Unless there is better enforcement of laws and a larger change in road behaviour, this reality is unlikely to change.