India to step up safety on world’s most dangerous roads

Alarmed by the increasing fatalities on India's roads, the new government has begun a five-year project to cut road deaths by a fifth every year.

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NEW DELHI // This year, the family of Rakesh Pillai, a bank employee, achieved a long-held aspiration.

After hauling themselves around on bicycles and scooters all their lives, they bought a white Suzuki Wagon R, one of India’s best-selling compact cars.

It did not matter that no family member knew how to drive. Mr Pillai immediately took the car for a spin around his neighbourhood in New Delhi. He almost knocked down a couple of pedestrians, scratched a car door on a gate when making a turn, and bumped a wall while trying to reverse.

“In India, the main rule for most drivers is that you don’t stop for anyone,” said Mr Pillai, 31. “Cars don’t stop for walkers, and walkers don’t stop for cars.”

India has the world’s deadliest roads, the result of a flood of untrained drivers, inadequate law enforcement, badly maintained highways and cars that fail modern crash tests.

Alarmed by the increasing fatalities, the new government has begun a five-year project to cut road deaths by a fifth every year, part of the most ambitious overhaul of motorway laws since independence in 1947.

About 1.2 million Indians were killed in car accidents over the past decade, on average one every four minutes, while 5.5 million were seriously injured.

While road deaths in many emerging markets have dipped even as vehicle sales rose, Indian fatalities have shot up by half in the past 10 years.

The government is proposing a drastic increase in fines and prison sentences for dangerous driving. It will create an authority with a sole focus on road safety, impose stricter regulations on car manufacturers, and employ technology, such as automated driving tests, to cut down on corruption.

Drivers caught speeding or who drink and drive will face a fine of 50,000 rupees (Dh3,000) – 10 times the average monthly salary – and the threat of jail. The current maximum fine for speeding is 1,000 rupees and for drink driving 3,000 rupees.

“It is not going to change road habits overnight, and any success will depend on a lot of work from the government to ensure these laws are implemented,” said Piyush Tewari, who founded the SaveLIFE Foundation to reduce accidents after his teenage cousin was killed in a crash.

The new law was inspired by the death of rural development minister Gopinath Munde in a crash in June. Munde, a close ally of prime minister Narendra Modi, was the third high-ranking politician to die in a car accident since 2000.

The legislation, to be introduced in a parliament session starting this month, will be a test of Mr Modi’s ability to win cross-party consensus because he lacks an upper-house majority.

At a test centre in Delhi last week, Mr Pillai stood in a queue that snaked outside into the autumn sunshine.

After an hour, Mr Pillai was called for his test on a busy road near a shopping mall. It involved driving in a straight line, pulling into a right-hand lane, making a U-turn and then another, before arriving back at the start.

It took all of 90 seconds.

“Sadly, I predict we are going to keep seeing a spiral in road deaths,” said Harman Singh, of safety campaign group Arrive Safe. “It is easier to pass a law than to change the mindset.”

* Reuters