South Asia's unacceptably high road fatalities: Need to bring about changes in emergency-care system

The South Asian region is home to an estimated 1.7 billion people, representing around 25 percent of the world’s population and also accounts for 25 percent of the world’s road crash fatalities.

Dr. Mridul Bhasin Nov 20, 2023
Road deaths (Representational Photo)

In 1999, my 17-year-old daughter was killed by an out-of-control bus. The driver had previous infractions of drunk driving. There were several bystanders and passers-by, but no one stopped to help. It is still difficult to think about this profoundly tragic experience.

Who or what should we blame in these instances? The driver who was directly responsible?  Or the government, which failed to enforce traffic rules and keep dangerous drivers off the road, or our societal road safety norms which promote risky behaviour and have no provisions for when accidents occur?

When we think of the sheer number of human lives lost in road traffic accidents in the South Asian region, we begin to realise that we need to build our own road safety infrastructure using shared policy initiatives and best practices.

The South Asian region is home to an estimated 1.7 billion people, representing around 25 percent of the world’s population and also accounts for 25 percent of the world’s road crash fatalities. This, although it is the world’s least urbanised region, with only 10 percent of the world’s vehicles.

South Asia is aspirational in terms of economic progress, acquisition of transport vehicles and development of roads. Its automobile market is one of the fastest growing in the world with automobile manufacturers eying the region to increase sales. Despite this projected growth, the region struggles to implement meaningful countermeasures to automobile-related injuries and deaths.

The WHO estimates that about 1.3 million people lose their lives every year to road traffic crashes. Low and middle-income countries bear a disproportionate share in this, with 93 per cent percent of the fatalities taking place in the South Asian region.

The role of non-governmental organisations in mitigating the issue is essential, especially in developing countries. As governments balance competing priorities, NGOs have made increasing headway in promoting road safety measures.

The WHO in collaboration with the Alliance for NGOs has even published a guidebook, Advocating for Emergency Care: A Guide for Non-governmental organizations (2023).

After our daughter’s passing, my husband and I started the Muskaan Foundation for Road Safety, with the aim of building a culture of safety on roads through Awareness, Education, Training and Advocacy. While road safety is not a current priority for India’s government or politicians, as part of civil society, we’ve learned to emphasise and fight for it.

Awareness is key to changing public opinion in favour of road safety legislation. For instance, in 2012, the SaveLIFE Foundation helped pass the Good Samaritan Law through its public interest writ petition in Rajasthan, India.

The law protects any Good Samaritan from police and legal procedural hassles and thus encourages speedy help to any road accident victim or any victim of a disaster by bystanders. This was made possible through exemplary legal advocacy by social entrepreneur Piyush Tiwari.

While this law is yet to be passed across India, Muskaan Foundation’s advocacy work and training programmes have helped create awareness about it. By collaborating and sharing expertise and best practices, South Asian countries can reduce these numbers. The World Bank Group study on the trade corridors of the eastern subregion of South Asia highlights the commonalities that represent the factors that undermine road safety in the area. These findings, published in the guidebook, note that:

- Road safety risks in regional trade corridors reflecting network-wide risks.
- Regional crash data management and analysis tools are generally poor quality. There are a few exceptions in certain states of India.
- Regional trade corridor infrastructure is unsafe and functionally deficient.

The wide variety of vehicles—in terms of both size and speed - undermines road safety in South Asian countriesUnsafe road user behaviours, like speeding, the nonuse of seat belts and safety helmets, unsafe overtaking, wrong-way driving, the nonuse of vehicle lights, risky road crossing by pedestrians, heavy vehicle overloading, and driver fatigue.

The humanitarian aim to improve emergency care must precede other changes that have to be brought to ensure safer roads in any country in the region. Implementing the steps laid out in the WHO guidebook can help reduce casualties resulting from a lack of infrastructure in emergency care. It provides step-by-step guidance about what can be done and how well-meaning organisations can bring about a change in the emergency care system in South Asian countries.  
(The author is a longtime social activist, writer and translator. She holds a PhD in American Literature from Emory University, Atlanta and is a co-founder and trustee of the Muskaan Foundation for Road Safety in Jaipur, India. Views are personal. By special arrangement with Sapan News )

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