Use Your Head, Wear Helmets

Though statistics do not always reveal the vital, these numbers are telling enough: With 4 million vehicles on its roads, India, on an average records as many as 90000 automobile-related deaths every year. The US on the other hand, despite a staggering vehicle population of 175 million (that is 43 times that of India) suffers only 39000 deaths in road mishaps. That is, in deaths per vehicle terms, the country fares 1022 worse than the US.

Even in Washington DC, which is rated in an Allstate Insurance Company report as America’s most accident-prone city, the time between accidents is an incredible 4.8 years! This figure for the country’s safest town, Fort Collins in Colorado is 13.9 years—that is if there is a crash today, it is unlikely that there would be another for the next nearly 14 years in that city. Even more damning for India is the fact that 140 of every 1000 accidents on its roads are fatal—the relative figure for The US is 2. On an average, about 15 per cent of all the people who meet with accidents in India die and about 50 per end up with disabilities.

Blame it on recklessness, abominable driving skills, lax law enforcement, poor road infrastructure or a combination of these or other reasons too numerous to be included in a single sentence, the fact is that the number of road accidents in India is plain and simple monstrous. Just as indisputable is the fact that accidents in India are seldom dealt with the seriousness they clearly deserve given the huge direct and indirect socio-economic costs they extract.

All serious accidents whether they cause death or disability lead to loss in productivity (in India accidents are the primary cause of death of people under 40) placing a serious (and avoidable) additional burden on the country’s chronically overstretched healthcare system. It ought to be understood that an accident is not a disease but a self-inflicted medical crisis most often brought about by negligent and irresponsible human behaviour.

It nevertheless needs instant and often intensive medical attention, which a country like India, struggling to extend even basic health services to its masses of deprived people, can ill afford. This is why accidents need to be much closer to the centre of the nation’s agenda than they unfortunately are. To begin with, studies have shown that with rigorous enforcement of even the existing laws, soft as they are, the number of accidents in the country can be reduced significantly.

However, if this were to be backed by much harsher laws, we can hope to bring the shocking rate of accidents in the country down to much saner levels, if not up to the best global standards. The resources freed up as a result can then be used by the nation to discharge its primary social responsibility, which is to provide care to its really needy and economically feeble patients, to its anemic women and malnourished children, to prevent epidemics and communicable diseases.

India has the moral right to say NO to using its meagre resources for treating people who end up in accidents as a result of engaging in criminally irresponsible behaviour on its roads. It is estimated that nearly 50 per cent of all the road accidents in the country are as a result of drunk driving. Similarly, there is enough data to prove that a large number of accident deaths happen because people do not follow (or are not forced to follow) even basic safety precautions like using helmets and seat-belts while driving.

The time to treat such people with indulgence is long gone—but when will we wake up? Take only, for instance, of how dramatically we may be able to improve road safety in the country with the simple act of educating or forcing everyone who rides a two-wheeler (and the pillion) to use a helmet. Studies show that such a move could reduce the rate of head injury by as much as 30 per cent and consequently deaths by 40 per cent.

Equally, a helmet reduces the severity of impact by 50 per cent and prevents skull fracture in 15 to 20 per cent of accident cases. Also, a helmet reduces the possibility of neurological and psychological disabilities by 30 to 40 per cent and the length of hospital stay by 20-40 per cent, which in turn curtails medical expenses by 25-30 per cent. Despite such scientific evidence, however, helmets are not mandatory across the country and even where they are the law is often flouted with impunity.

Our record on other fronts of law enforcement is just as dismal. In a country with extremely limited resources, it is criminal for the state to be picking up accident-related bills. However, if it is serious about saving its resources for far more socially urgent causes then it must try and educate its people to comply with existing rules. Beyond that it must bring in much harsher laws and enforce them with an iron hand to deter motorists from misbehaving on its roads.

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