Public affairs analyst Vivek Sengupta is Founder and Chief Executive of the consulting firm Moving Finger Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
India has the worst record of road safety in the world. The numbers are truly horrific. India accounts for 10 per cent of global road accidents, but only 1 per cent of the world's vehicles. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, which is the official repository of such statistics, around 1.35 lakh deaths were reported due to road accidents in 2010.
These figures are higher than those of any other country in the world, including China. There is one major road accident in India every minute. About 370 persons, the equivalent of a full load of a Jumbo jetliner, leave home every day in India and meet with violent deaths in road accidents. As many as 35 out of 100 people dying in India die because of road accidents.
An Indian is 20 times more likely to die in a road accident than a citizen of the developed world. The injured, half a million every year and often with permanent disabilities, share a miserable future along with their families.
According to The Planning Commission, the country loses as much as 3 per cent of its GDP every year due to road crashes. This makes road accidents one of India's biggest public health challenges. The Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors 2010 Study, a project covering 187 countries and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has included road injury in the list of top causes of death in India.
What is extremely worrisome is that the situation gets worse every year. As with much else in India today, policymakers are reasonably aware of the gravity of the situation. What is lacking is serious concerted action with a view to bringing about a significant difference to the alarming state of affairs. Worse, sometimes, they move in directions that are bound to exacerbate the situation. A case in point is the current exertions of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways towards permitting quadricyles as a new vehicular category in the country. A committee set up by the ministry is expected to come out this week with a set of regulations relating to the category. This would most likely be a first in any developing country of the world.
Quadricycles? Think golf carts and similar vehicles used in resorts to ferry guests from one point to another. Quadricycles are a slightly sophisticated version of these - they are a kind of motorised micro-cars.
Most countries that permit the use of such vehicles do so for only recreational use. In India, we seem to be set to introduce them as a full-fledged vehicular category and as such permitted to run on major city roads.
Champions of quadricycles say that these would safer substitutes for auto-rickshaws. Really? Only insofar as these would be four-wheelers and not three-wheelers, as auto rickshaws are. Otherwise, these are highly unsafe vehicles. The fatality risk, per 100,000 vehicle kilometres, is up to 14 times greater than that of passenger cars. Hardly the sort of vehicles whose addition would make our killer roads safer. And if quadricycles are indeed safer than auto rickshaws, would the authorities ban three-wheelers from our roads?
Are quadricycles vehicles greener and more environment friendly than comparable vehicles? Nay not so. Quadricycles release 4 times more toxic emissions as compared to diesel cars and 8 times more toxic emissions as compared to petrol cars. Once again, hardly the sort of vehicles whose addition would make our already poisoned city air less noxious.
It is argued that quadricycles would be up to Rs.40,000 cheaper than compact cars. But would the price differential justify the introduction of a class of vehicles that would be otherwise a strict no-no in terms of safety records and emission standards? Multiplicity of vehicular categories is the bane of our roads. It is a key reason for the chaos and congestion as well as for our unacceptably high accident rates. Must we now mindlessly let loose another vehicular category on our over-burdened roads?
Many European countries do permit the use of quadricycles. But these are manufactured in limited numbers for use mostly in leisure activities and for recreational or other off-road purposes. They are also used by those who do not qualify for regular driving licences for passenger cars. In fact, their sales have been dipping in recent years, thanks to increased awareness about low occupant safety. Nowhere is quadricycle a mainstream vehicle. From the point of view of road safety, it is unfortunate enough that we have mainstreamed scooters and motorcycles (with disastrous consequences). Must we now deliberately and consciously make our roads more dangerous than they already are?