Friday, May 29, 2015

Accident prone, but refusing to learn


There was an uncharacteristic lull on Gangtok roads on Wednesday, 20 May 2015. Taxi stops were crowded with people and not taxis. Although this is a common sight during tourist season, on Wednesday, tourists were not to blame. “Aju purra checking hundai cha ki anta keta haru sab gaari thankau dai cha,” said one cabbie to a passenger, proud and perhaps relieved that all his documents were in order and that he was not one of the taxi drivers staying off to avoid traffic police checking.
This latest bout of “checking” comes in the wake of a string of road accidents that have occurred in the past week around Gangtok.
Two of these accidents claimed the lives of a 5-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy, the latter a tourist from Haryana.
As Sikkim grows, road safety and traffic management are becoming a serious challenge. Road accidents are expected to be the fifth leading cause of death worldwide by 2030 according to United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. The latest incidents, in which two toddlers were killed in separate accidents, happened in Gangtok’s outskirts where traffic on the roads has been steadily increasing over the years. These are stretches which routinely witness speeding and rash driving but do not even occasionally receive any efforts at ensuring road safety. Apart from the periodic awareness programs and inspection drives, we need a proper plan to tackle the growing volume and spread of traffic. 
Traffic personnel in Gangtok are concentrated along the highway from Tadong to Zero Point. The places that fall along this route see the highest volume of traffic and hence, perhaps, the traffic police presence. Areas surrounding Gangtok are serviced by mobile traffic vans and traffic personnel from time to time. But it is areas in the outskirts which suffer from speeding vehicles in unsure hands. The main highway stretch is almost always too congested to allow over-speeding and invariably has enough men and women in blue to keep drivers in check unless of course VIP beacons embolden them to inconvenience everyone else on the roads. But let’s leave inconsiderate driving for later and concentrate here on dangerous roads.
DSP-Traffic, Ongmu Bhutia, confirms that she receives complaints on a regular basis from outlying areas like Arithang, Chanmari, Development Area etc. These complaints are mostly related to traffic congestion though. She also agrees that a proper plan has to be made for traffic management at such places and adds that shortage of manpower has made it difficult to station personnel at all areas which might need traffic management to keep the roads safe.
Preceding the checking on Wednesday, the state police had conducted a speed check at 32 Mile on Monday using an electronic speed radar for the first time. 32 vehicles were challaned for speeding on the day. A step in the right direction, but a question many want to ask is - what exactly are the speed limits? And how have they been worked out?
Keeping a lookout against speeding is important, as is a watch against drunken driving. Both aspects have recently brought under some policing with the procurement of new equipment. In the same week as a speed gun was deployed on the national highway and 32 speedsters booked at 32No., cops also checked against driving under the influence of alcohol by having random drivers exhale into a breath-analyzer.
Any effort to make the roads safer and pull incompetent or otherwise compromised drivers off the road is welcome, in fact even urgent, because Sikkim has now also earned the ignominy of being the State with the highest rate of road accident deaths per thousand registered vehicles!
As per the latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau on accidental deaths, in the year 2013, Sikkim recorded 1.6 deaths per thousand vehicles registered in the State. It shared the top position with Bihar which also had the same rate. West Bengal was a close second at 1.5 deaths per thousand vehicles, and this cluster makes one wonder whether there is something intrinsically wrong with the “ustaads” of this region that so many of it drivers end up being responsible for such a high rate of deaths. The national average is 0.9 deaths per thousand vehicles. Sikkim is hence nearly double the national average on fatalities. As per the NCRB data, in 2013, there were 244 road accidents in Sikkim, in which 68 lives were lost. 68 might not appear to be a very high number, but Sikkim is a very small state. What this number means is that one person was killed roughly every fifth day in a road accident in Sikkim in 2013.
The numbers have dipped slightly for 2014. As per data shared by the Criminal Investigation Department, a total of 201 road accidents were reported, 49 of which resulted in fatalities. The number of deaths caused in these 49 accidents is however not clear.
Even a cursory recap of accidents resulting in fatalities will reveal that most of these occur outside city limits and often along some notorious stretches. This is however a very unscientific guesstimate. If Sikkim is serious about addressing the problem of accidents, it will have to first start studying these accidents and identifying patterns and problem areas.
For instance, there are no identified danger zones or accident prone zones or spots in and around Gangtok. Identifying a spot as an accident prone one and setting up safety measures should be a priority. Areas like Bakthang falls near Upper Burtuk require immediate attention especially during tourist season. The place is swarming with tourists and vehicles. Another spot is the Vajra Cinema Hall area where the North Sikkim taxi stand is also located. 
A common complaint oft heard nowadays is how rashly people drive. There are many theories as to the reason behind this from young inexperienced drivers to drunken driving and even the increasing number of female drivers. Whatever the actual cause may be, fact is rash driving is a danger to lives. According to 2012 data of UNESCAP, 77.5% accidents occurred due to driver fault. If anything, this percentage will be even higher for Sikkim. Clearly then, personnel responsible for road safety should be cracking down harder on dangerous drivers. Unfortunately, traffic police appears to be on watch more against sedentary drivers. Sample this - out of 1,050 challans compounded by the Traffic Police in the month of May in Sikkim[data for the past year or before were not available], there was not a single one for rash driving. Issuing challans for rash driving is not common practice admit traffic personnel unless there is an accident. On the other hand, 918 of the 1,050 challans were for parking in non-parking areas! Parking in non-parking area can, at the most, cause obstruction to smooth traffic flow but not kill people.
While on rash driving, it is obvious that too many inexperienced hands are driving passenger vehicles in Sikkim. The supply of reasonably experienced and proper trained drivers is woefully short of the number of new vehicles arriving on Sikkim roads every year.
As the SP-East DB Giri points out, “We are seeing a rise in the number of young inexperienced taxi drivers in the state. They get their driving licenses made from West Bengal and even Nagaland where the process of issuing driving license is not as strict as in Sikkim. It is difficult to tackle this situation because an Indian driving license can be used anywhere in the country. Also, most of them are using Non-Transport driving licenses to drive taxis which is illegal and this is something we hope to curtail with regular checks”.
A Non-Transport driving license is issued for driving private vehicles while a Transport license allows one to drive a taxi. In order to get a T-License [often referred to as Taxi Driving Licence], a person has to complete one year with a Non-Transport license. This, apparently so that s/he has gained enough hands-on experience of driving on roads here and can hence be trusted with public lives.
The problem also lies with the fact that most taxis are not driven by their owners. Given the shortage of drivers, and perhaps also because they themselves do not need to ride the vehicle, taxi owners, on average, are not very concerned about the antecedents of the drivers they hire or when the vehicle is involved in an accident because it is the driver who is held responsible.
To address this, the SP East informs that they plan to start booking owners as well when their vehicles are caught breaking traffic rules or are involved in accidents. Such move could help ensure that vehicle owners hire drivers only after verifying their driving skills and aptitude.
Also problematic is the low number of accused convicted in road accident cases. High conviction rates can prove a strong deterrent in bringing down the number of traffic violations, but coming to an “understanding” is the norm here. Even officials admit that the number of convictions of persons accused of causing death in a road accident would not be even 10%. Hence, with neither enough deterrence, nor enough efforts to check against dangerous driving, Sikkim remains accident prone and refusing to learn.

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