By P. Sreekumaran
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: February 20, 2020 will go down in the history of Kerala as a day that witnessed a horrifying tragedy. The people of Kerala and Tamil Nadu woke up to a terrible road accident that snuffed out 19 precious lives.
The accident occurred at Avinasi in Tamil Nadu in the early hours of January 20. A container lorry laden with tiles and bricks crashed into the right side of a KSRTC bus coming from Bengaluru to Kochi, causing the death of 19 passengers and injury to many others. There were 48 passengers besides the driver and conductor in the ill-fated bus. The driver and conductor were among the dead. The horrifying tragedy occurred around 3.15 a.m.
A heart-warming feature of the accident has been the manner in which the local people rushed to the help of the victims. Within ten minutes, people reached the accident site and started rescuing the passengers trapped inside the bus.
Likewise, no word of praise will be too high for the promptness with which the Tamil Nadu Government pressed into service staffers belonging to various departments to ensure rescue and relief operations. They were there right from the early hours and worked late into the night to ensure succour to the injured. The tragedy brought out the very best in human beings. The milk of human kindness flowed uninhibitedly. That was a sight for the gods.
The Kerala Government also deserves high praise for the manner in which it rushed to the help of the accident victims. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan led from the front. Two ministers – Transport Minister A K Sasindran and Agriculture Minister VS Sunil Kumar – were rushed to Avinasi to supervise the rescue and relief operations. The injured were admitted to various hospitals in Avinasi and Coimbatore. The bodies of the departed were brought to various parts of Kerala in the night itself. The dead were given a tearful farewell by the people of the respective areas who turned out in large numbers to pay their homage.
The Kerala Government has also announced Rs 10 lakh compensation to the families of the dead. The Government will also bear the expenses of treatment to the injured who have been admitted to various hospitals in the State.
While all these steps are praise-worthy, it is also time to seriously think about urgent corrective measures. Too many accidents are taking place too frequently. This must come to an end. The Government should spare no efforts to see that there is no recurrence of such tragedies on the road. Proper lessons must be learnt from the tragedy and correctives put in place forthwith.
There is no denying the fact that most of such accidents take place due to over-speeding on the highways, especially at night. It is not as if there are no laws to prevent accidents. What is lacking – and such lapses are inexcusable – is the failure to enforce these laws strictly.
For instance, the Central Government has formed Highway Police to ensure checking of speeding vehicles at every 25 kilometers. Such checks make sure that the drivers are alert and do not fall asleep while on duty. In the case of the Avinashi tragedy, preliminary enquiries reveal that the accident occurred because the driver fell asleep momentarily. The checks also ensure that the drivers are not in an inebriated state.
However, it is as clear as daylight that such checks are an exception rather than rule. Hereafter, governments must strictly enforce frequent checks so that precious lives are not lost on the highways.
In this connection the Motor Vehicles Department and the Police have a special role to play. It is their failure to conduct periodic checks that cause fatal accidents. Such dereliction of duty must not go unpunished. Penalties must be imposed and punishment handed out promptly to minimise, if not end, road accidents.
A major factor that causes road accidents is the refusal of the drivers to observe the rules. For instance, in the case of the Avinasi accident, it was the failure of the driver to keep left that caused the terrible accident.
It must also be made sure that lorries do not carry weights beyond the permissible limits.
It is also a fact that drivers are overworked. Some of them are continuously on duty without a break. Needless to say,, such a state of affairs is a recipe for disaster. Drivers should not be called upon to do more than eight hours of duty.
And it is of utmost importance that at least two drivers should be on duty on a particular route. As per the old Central Motor Vehicles Act, two drivers used to be employed on a particular route. This rule was missing from the act after it was amended in the 1990s. The earlier provision should be brought back into the Act.
It may sound impractical. But, in view of the frightening increase in accidents and fatalities on the roads, serious thought must be given to a ban on vehicular traffic, especially that of big lorries, from, 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Because that is the time when drivers are at their most vulnerable. There could be objection from bus and lorry owners. But human lives are more precious than anything else. That must be the sole consideration while ensuring that night travels do not end up snuffing out precious lives. The time to act is now. Further delays and failure to strictly enforce laws would be nothing short of a crime against humanity.