Wednesday, 25 May 2016

TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS AND STATISTICIANS



Some days ago, I came across an article in an online portal titled “Bad Drivers are a Good Indicator of a Corrupt Government” by Christopher Groskopf. This article offered a provocative conclusion: “If you’re in a country where everyone drives on the sidewalk and nobody stops at stop signs, you can be pretty sure the government isn’t working right”.  Most of the studies that Groskopf cited in this article were done by economists depending on statistical calculations, who specialized in traffic fatalities, natural disasters and their link to corrupt or inefficient government services.

These studies can help us in understanding the rampant problem of traffic accidents in Goa, as they attempt to discuss universal factors involved in people losing lives in motor vehicle accidents. Moreover, being exposed to different perspectives would help us see what is specific to Goa and what is not. While the link between corruption and traffic fatalities is important, we also need to read the narrative of ‘corruption’ with social and economic realities in Goa.

In the study titled, “The Direct and Indirect Effects of Corruption on Motor Vehicle Crash Deaths”, Law Teik Hua and others argue that “corruption” impacts the count of road accident deaths in two ways: the direct mechanism, in which corruption reduces the “stringency of road safety regulation and enforcement”; and the indirect mechanism, wherein corruption impacts the per capita income, thereby reducing/increasing motorization and consequently reducing/increasing road accidents. In another study titled, “Factors Associated with the Relationship between Motorcycle Deaths and Economic Growth” by the abovementioned authors, the role of inefficient political institutions is highlighted. Motorcycle deaths were observed to have dwindled as road safety policy measures were enforced by political institutions that were committed to do so. The infrastructure of health services and the response to casualties also influenced the statistics of road accident deaths.

An important distinction is made between ‘legal drivers’ and ‘safe drivers’ by Nejat Anbarci and others in their study “Traffic Fatalities and Public Sector Corruption”. Anbarci and others argue that it is public and governmental corruption that produces ‘legal drivers’ but not ‘safe drivers’. We are provided with a schema of how corruption works to produce ‘unsafe drivers’. Assuming that licenses can be easily procured by a payment of a bribe or that the authorities are lax when it comes to following proper procedure to issue licenses, a driver is more likely disposed to take the easy way out. Thus, he/she has a legal license, but is not skilled enough and is more likely to put himself/herself and others at risk on the roads. Not just road accident deaths, but economists have also written about the links of public sector corruption with natural disasters such as earthquakes. Factors such as substandard materials in construction, lack of checks and inspections, and an inefficient system to respond to natural disasters, all can have links, one way or another, to the levels of corruption in the public sector.

Thus, the idea that public sector corruption impacts directly or indirectly traffic-related and other deaths is credibly established by researchers discussed above. Yet again it is the role of the State that is highlighted as important in order to prevent motor vehicle deaths. In other words, the State should play the role of a neutral arbiter, enforcing a just rule of law. In India, this becomes an acute problem as widespread corruption relating to traffic management is reported frequently, and even acknowledged by high-level government officials. It is said that people end up paying more bribes to traffic cops, although most government offices are dens of corruption. Whether traffic related corruption is higher than other areas is not the issue. Rather we should think about how this traffic related corruption is antithetical to human dignity and realizing a democratic society.

In India and in Goa other factors come into play such as those of class and caste. The poor who are forced to live on the streets may sometimes get run over and become victims of road rage. By the logic and method of the studies discussed above, one could argue that such incidents are related to the income of the poor – they are forced to live on the streets because they have no income or very little income. However, the social structure in India denies the basic right to earn a livelihood to many. Road-related corruption can also be a symptom of the entrenched structures of caste and class, in this case. Thus, if at all income of persons is in any way linked to road accident related deaths, merely building wider roads would not suffice. A social and economic change in the lives of people is also needed. Further, the classist bias of the system in Goa and India is visible in the manner in which roads are seen as a privilege of the high-end car users. The pedestrian foot paths, for instance, are seldom given preference and a large part of these pedestrians come from the socially and economically lower castes and classes. How much a society is willing to accommodate the rights of pedestrians, the least powerful on roads, would indicate the seriousness to address the problem of road rage and deaths due to road accidents.

A holistic understanding of the problem is the need of the hour. All concerned – the individual drivers, the urban planners, and the government needs to recognize how they contribute to the problem of road rage and road accident deaths. Corruption does contribute to the problem, but it is also a symptom of existing societal structures.

Illustration: Angela Ferrao.

(First published on O Heraldo, dt: 25 May, 2016)

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