Twenty-nine school children and the bus driver died when a school bus fell off the cliff at Nurpur in Himachal Pradesh last year. Unfortunately, none of the children were wearing seat belts which led to them being ejected out of their seats or hit the compartment during the fall, leading to the casualties.
On an average, 25 children die in road accidents every day. In 2017, the police recorded that as many as 9,048 children were killed in road accidents that year. The number of child deaths in road accidents is five times more than the fatalities recorded in all crimes against children committed in India in the same year.
An independent study now finds that there has been a policy apathy towards deaths of children in road accidents by consecutive governments. According to the study, the lack of awareness about child safety measures among road users and lack of initiatives by motor vehicle manufacturers are the primary culprits behind the deaths of children.
"According to the WHO Global Status Report on Road Safety 2018, road crashes are the leading cause of death among children and young adults in the age range of 5 to 29 years. This creates a hole in our demographic dividend," said Piyush Tewari, founder of SaveLIFE Foundation. "Working in road safety, we realised a long time back that there is no child safety-centric focus in India ever, in either our motor vehicles laws, mindset, or driving attitude. Which is why we had commissioned this study about a year back," Tewari says, explaining the intention behind the study.
The study saw backing from Nissan Motors India and was released by Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for road, transport and highways. Survey agency Marketing and Development Research Associates (MDRA) conducted the interviews for the report in Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Jaipur, Lucknow, Kolkata, Guwahati, Patna, Panaji, Chennai and Kochi.
The study, titled 'Study on rear seat-belt usage and child road safety in India' mapped 6,300 respondents across these 11 major cities. Among the respondents interviewed were parents, children, school bus drivers, school cab drivers, school principals, medical professionals and owners of hospitals.
Special discussions and interviews were conducted with road safety experts on the issues of child road safety for the study. Surveys and observational studies that record real-life experiences of road accident victims with ambulance teams, hospitals, and police, were conducted for the study, commissioned by SaveLIFE Foundation, an NGO working on urban governance and road safety issues across a number of states.
The key findings were the recorded admission of 75.7 per cent of the parents that they are not aware of their vehicles requiring or having any child restraint systems (seat belts) even after being aware of their benefits. Only 3.5 per cent parents ever admitted to using rear seat belts and special seats for their children, that too only during highway drives or mountain climbs, the study found.
Among two-wheeler riders, a steep 93 per cent claimed lack of awareness about child helmets. "Manufacturers of helmets are found wanting in their role of manufacturing child helmets and creating awareness among them," said Tewari. Currently, no Indian helmet manufacturers are making child helmets.
Only Chinese-manufactured child helmets are sold in cities where they are available—like in Kolkata—due to strict enforcement of the city traffic police.
Only about 11 per cent of the 1,187 school buses (more than 100 school buses in each of these cities) surveyed had seat belts for children passengers, which is legislated as a requirement for safe school buses by the Supreme Court, the study found.
Among all the grim findings was this ray of hope. More than 91 per cent of all people surveyed felt the need for a strong road safety law to prevent child fatalities on our roads.
To amend the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988, the government had proposed a revised law in 2017. The amendments included critical aspects about including child road safety aspects in the Motor Vehicles Act. As the Parliament debated the need of these laws the government, too, dithered on bringing the Road Safety Amendment Bill as an ordinance first.
"We are trying to convince the government to take up those amendments focusing only children and pedestrians first. These are non-controversial issues for the government," said Tewari. The amendment, also seeking computerised driving license issue system and a regulated commercial vehicle licensing system, had faced oppositions in the Rajya Sabha owing to pressures from RTO and transport lobbies on political parties.
Owing up the responsibility for the non-passage of the bill, Gadkari said, "This is one of my biggest failures.” The minister, who claims credit for introducing the electric vehicles-related amendments in Motor Vehicles Act, said he will make suggestions to the Union cabinet for bringing in the child safety and pedestrian safety-related amendments as an ordinance soon.
The amendment bill brought by the Modi government would lapse after detailed discussions on it by two Rajya Sabha panels separately. However, states too have the powers and can enact their own laws.
"In Delhi, a comprehensive road safety legislation is due to be adopted soon by the government," said Tewari, who convinced the AAP leadership in the capital state about the need for having the road safety legislation.
One can only hope that more states follow suit even as the Modi government and even regional parties focus their energy on trumping the 2019 polls across the nation.