Are road deaths really accidents? In the Indian context, we don’t really know who to blame

In India, even when human error is the 'cause', it may be wrong
Are road deaths really accidents? In the Indian context, we don’t really know who to blame
Are road deaths really accidents? In the Indian context, we don’t really know who to blame
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Figures on road collisions and injuries released by union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari are merely telling us what we already know: India’s roads aren’t safe, and claim an increasing number of lives each year. What went almost unnoticed was his pronouncement that “faulty engineering” was one of the key reasons, for these crashes even though his own ministry blames irresponsible driving for the majority. 

Released on Thursday by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, the report has worrying statistics. According to the International Road Federation, only Russia had more collisions than India in 2015.

The five southern states are in the top 10 for the highest number of road accidents, but the dubious distinction for the highest number of fatalities went to Uttar Pradesh, followed by Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.

The media have thoroughly reported on the findings of the transport ministry’s study and rightly focused attention on the dangers of India’s roads, while providing data on the rapid rise in the number of vehicle sales in the country. But neither the ministry nor the media (perhaps because of lack of data) have underscored the seriousness of why these accidents occur: human error; or, as the report calls it, the driver’s fault.

Gadkari said that the ministry’s report found that 71 % of all accidents. In the same breath he appears to have blamed “faulty engineering” as a key cause for the crashes.

A 2015 report by the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi suggests that Indian law was structured in a way to record the cause of an accident as a form of human error through four or five legal provisions under the IPC or the Motor Vehicles Act.

The report says: “… provisions are the deciding factor in how a police officer has to assign blame to one of the participants in a crash (usually one of the drivers). This is an important issue, as the ‘cause’ of the crash has to be recorded as a ‘fault’ of a driver under one or more of the above provisions in most cases. This procedure ensures that 80% or more of the cases get attributed to ‘human error’ and there is no place for understanding crashes as a result of a host of factors including vehicle, road and infrastructure design.”

It says that NCRB lists driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs as the cause for 1.6% of all crashes but independent studies suggest that alcohol and drugs are a contributing factor in around 20-30 % of crashes. 

Accident or crash?

The world over, however, there appears to be sufficient data to link human error to vehicle collisions and crashes, which often result in tragic deaths or injuries.

In the United States, a movement has gathered momentum to stop calling these incidents anything but accidents. Using analysis of causal factors, road safety advocates say that using the term ‘accident’ implies that it was no one’s fault, when in fact, it very well could have been.

The New York Times report in May that in January, the state of Nevada had enacted a law that would change nomenclature in road and accident-related laws. Now on, the term ‘accident’ would be replaced with ‘crash’ in several instances in these laws. A total of 28 states in the US have moved away from the word ‘accident’ to refer to roads incidents.

Media too have made changes in their terminology. The same NYT report said that AP had changed its terminology. With effect from June 1, AP said of the entries ‘accident’  and ‘crash’ in its Style Guide: “Generally acceptable for automobile and other collisions and wrecks. However, when negligence is claimed or proven, avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible. In such cases, use crash, collision or other terms. See collide, collision.”

NYT also has a fascinating account of how the term ‘accident’ acquired currency in the early 1900s and became part of everyday language.

Research by historian and Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, Peter Norton, showed that the industries began to use that word in order to protect themselves from paying the medical bills of workers injured on the factory floor.

NYT quoted Norton as saying: “Relentless safety campaigns started calling these events ‘accidents,’ which excused the employer of responsibility. When traffic deaths spiked in the 1920s, a consortium of auto-industry interests, including insurers, borrowed the word to shift the focus away from the cars themselves. Automakers were very interested in blaming reckless drivers,” Dr. Norton said.

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