India's long road to tougher law against killer drivers

India's long road to tougher law against killer drivers, India, killer drivers

One month after Anita Rajput’s son was crushed to death by two buses as he walked home in the Indian capital, the distraught mother cannot bear to send her remaining child back to school.

“Has anything changed? How can I let him out on the road? What if my younger son meets a similar fate,” Rajput told AFP, tears welling in her eyes.

India has some of the world’s deadliest roads, with more than 200,000 fatalities annually, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The deaths are blamed on weak laws, which are routinely flouted by drivers and poorly enforced, often by corrupt officials.

After years of inaction, the government is proposing tougher penalties, including heftier fines for speeding and reckless drivers — currently as low as US$2 — in a bid to bring down the shockingly high toll.

Victims and road safety experts have been anxiously watching parliament, where premier Narendra Modi’s government has promised to introduce a bill — overhauling a law dating back to the British colonial period.

But when parliament rose this month it delayed the bill until late April, a setback victims described as a “big disappointment for the entire country“ although they remain hopeful.

“It’s worth having a new law, even if it saves a single person. I know the pain,” said Pulkit Kumar, whose spine was crushed in a motorcycle accident leaving him bedridden.

Kumar, 29, was riding home in 2011 when he was knocked down by a bus while waiting at traffic lights in Delhi’s satellite town of Noida.

Forced to quit his job and faced with huge hospital bills, Kumar is, at the least, hoping for justice.

But four years after the accident, a case against the bus driver is bogged down in India’s notoriously slow legal system, and he has received no payout.

“It was a government-owned bus but I never got any compensation or at least a courtesy visit from any official,” Kumar told AFP from his home in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state.

The number of deaths on Indian roads – more than 231,000 every year, according to a WHO report in 2013 – is disproportionately high.

India owns only one percent of global vehicles but accounts for 15 percent of global traffic deaths, according to the World Bank.

Campaigners say corruption is at the heart of the problem, with drivers able to bribe police and judicial officers if they are caught breaking traffic rules.

As a result, motorists regularly flout laws on wearing seatbelts, speeding, using mobile phones at the wheel or switching on their headlights while driving at night.

“We live in a disastrous system. There’s corruption in [everything from] building roads to getting licences and getting away from paying fines,” said Anurag Kulshrestha, president of trafficZam, a Delhi-based charity for road safety.

He also points to the dilapidated state of India’s vast road network, some of which are poorly designed and ill-equipped to cope with the thousands of extra cars pouring onto them, thanks to a rising middle class.

The government pledged in its annual budget to build 100,000 additional kilometres of roads and to hike infrastructure spending by US$11.3 billion, although experts say much more is needed.

Until then, drivers will have to continue to compete with trucks, buses, speeding taxis, handcarts, cows and jaywalking pedestrians, who are forced onto pot-holed roads by the clutter of street vendors and crumbling pavements.

Experts say separating vehicles based on their size will help reduce deaths – such as building more truck bypasses and cyclist-only lanes.

“Traffic education must (also) be taught in school, we have to prepare our children for safe roads,” S. Velmurugan, a scientist at New Delhi’s Central Road Research Institute, told AFP.

Motorbikes carrying entire families without helmets are a common sight in India and other developing countries.

The new law will do little to slash corruption or improve understanding of safety. But it is part of a broader five-year government plan to cut road deaths by one fifth annually, that also includes stricter regulations on manufacturers to deter defective cars.

Inspired in part by the death in a car crash last year of a minister who was a close ally of Modi, the law hikes penalties for a range of traffic violations.

Fines for jumping red lights, not wearing seatbelts and speeding will rise from less than US$2 to between US$50 and US$250, an enormous sum for many Indians.

Fines for drink drivers will increase five-fold, from US$48 to US$240 for a first offence and US$500 for a repeat one, while a licence can be removed after four violations.

The proposals come too late for Rajput’s eldest son Mukul, 19, who wanted to become a chef.

Rajput is determined to “fight till the end” to bring those responsible for his death to justice.

She said Mukul was walking home from school, anxious to see his father who had just been released from hospital, when he was hit by what Rajput calls reckless bus drivers.

“We were excited to be together. He had wanted to stay at home,” but needed to go and sit his exams, she said at her home tucked away in Delhi’s old quarter.

Then “we got a call from the police”.

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