No more one for the road
The cost of lives is far greater than loss of revenue from highway watering holes
Article first published in @abplive.in Click here to read
In a country where an individual dies every four minutes in a road accident, I am all for Road Safety. But, I do not hold anything against drinking in moderation either. However, drinking and driving is an absolute "no-no" for me. I have learnt how even small level of alcohol can impair reflex and judgment on the wheel leading to, sometime fatal, accidents.
No doubt the Supreme Court's order banning liquor vends and bars within 500 meters of designated highways was passed with the noble intention of improving road safety. However, it seems to have caused more commotion among state-governments, bar owners and hoteliers than tipplers. The reason for that is not difficult to understand. Drinkers will easily find new watering holes beyond 500 meters off the highways. Liquor shops can also shift location within a short time. But, bar owners and hotels will not be able to uproot establishments and move to new premises. Worse hit will be large hotels, which have sprung up with massive investments in the outskirts along highways leading up to the cities, much like what one sees on beltways abroad. There are also exceptions like the restaurant hub in Gurgaon's Cyber City or hip microbreweries in Bangalore’s Sarjapur Road.
But, the worst affected would be the state governments. With most state exchequers running on massive deficit from populist schemes, liquor is a cash cow. Apart from Excise Duty, many state governments have themselves entered the business of liquor wholesale and distribution. Special rates of VAT and Service Tax have been imposed on Bars and Restaurants serving alcohol with differential tariffs based on the class of outlets. To keep the cash registers churning even on holidays and festivals some states have drastically reduced the number of dry-days in the state.
The Supreme Court ruling is a crippling blow to all of them. Thus, we see the scramble to find solutions by working around the order. Apart from the most obvious step like de-notifying state highways and seeking special exemptions, some states are reported to be mulling about pressing the centre to seek a Presidential reference. Some may argue that the Supreme Court order, however well meaning, is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. At the same time, while the revenue concerns of the states may be valid, they cannot turn a blind eye to the loss of lives of citizens. Therefore, as responsible representatives of the people, state governments ought to implement concrete measures to improve road-safety standards. Without that they have no case, in my opinion, to seek relaxation or reprieve.
I am not sure, if there is any statistics to show what proportion of accidents are caused due to the sheer incompetence of drivers (who are not inebriated) and those that are a result of drunken driving by otherwise well trained drivers. But, definitely, licensing is a major issue. Some years back, the then Lt Governor of Delhi, Tejendra Khanna, got into a controversy by suggesting a separate driving license regime for Delhi-NCR. He was trolled for implying, licensing standards in the neighbouring states were lax. Though Khanna’s comment may not have been politically correct, it was not far from the truth.
A look around us will show the appalling fall in the quality of drivers –across all sorts of vehicles ranging from public transport, commercial and private automobiles, three and two wheelers. This can be attributed to inadequate driver training and examination, as much as poor implementation of traffic rules – especially with regard to speed and lane discipline. We all know how difficult it is to obtain a driving licence in western countries. People go through expensive training with certified driving instructors and even then sometimes need several attempts to pass the test. Licence of one state is, often, not considered valid in another (just the proposal of Tejendra Khanna) in case of shifting residence. In India, most people do not go through formal training at all. They enroll in Driving Schools only to grease their way through the RTO test. Truck, bus and taxi drivers generally learn from their “Ustads”, who are themselves steeped in wrong practices.
With increase in traffic congestion in cities and shortage of parking spaces, a greater number of people are opting for chauffeurs. But, to find a good driver is a challenge both in terms of availability and cost. Often, not being able to pay high salaries we compromise in terms of experience and quality. Overall, there is acute shortage of good drivers in the country. With an exponential increase in the population of cars, the mismatch between supply and demand will only go up. Therefore, this is an area ripe for accelerated development under the government’s Skill India Programme. In parallel, there has to be a ruthless, even draconian, implementation of licencing standards across the country. Training by accredited agencies engaging certified instructors needs to be made compulsory. High level of accountability has to be placed on RTOs and Motor Vehicles authorities – tracking the traffic rules violation and accident records of their licencees. The proposal for restricting transferability of licences across states or metropolitan areas must be re-examined.
At present, the entire emphasis of driver training is on mastering traffic rules and signs. There has to be a special emphasis on “Defensive Driving” and Road Safety. This should form the part of the training curriculum and applicants have to be tested on them in written examinations.
Finally, the salvation lies in enforcement. In many places, the authority of traffic police have either been diluted or become corrupted. They need to be empowered as well as the number of Highway Traffic Patrols has to be increased by several times. Simultaneously, along with software and people, governments also have to invest in hardware such as breathalysers, speed sensors and cameras.
Armed with all these proposals, they can think of going back to the Supreme Court for a revision of its order or seek a Presidential reference. Even if neither is possible, the states should initiate the steps in any case. It is sometimes said in jest, the proof of India being an ultimate market economy is that; here everything is available for a price including a Driving Licence. But, the cost of life is far too high to be played around by minor tinkering of classifications from highways to driveways.