On a hot late morning in the last week of February, 2023, there was an unusually huge pile up of vehicles on NH 66 near Kozhikode.
Having taken the highway to get around from the leafy and idyllic town of Chevayur to get to the centre of Kozhikode many times, this writer had never seen such an awful jam on the stretch. After taking a diversion to head to Kozhikode’s centre and coming back to the same spot after an hour, it was clear that the traffic had eased out. By then, the reason for the major jam was visible. A bus and car had collided on the highway. The car’s airbags may just have saved the passengers from serious injury, and there didn’t seem to be any blood at the site of the accident. Not everyone involved in a road accident in Kerala is as lucky.
According to the Kerala Police statistics, there were 43,957 road accidents in the state in 2022 (up to December). They led to a total of 49,261 injuries and 4,303 deaths. For obvious reasons, there was a rise in deaths from road accidents from 2020 and 2021, but the figure is lower than in 2019 when 4,440 people died on the roads of Kerala.
For the general public these may just look like statistics, but in the last six years, 27,872 people died as a result of road accidents. Just think of the number of families that lost a loved one. Such a loss is irreplaceable.
Tragic death of Dr Parvathy
In the early hours of November 4, 2018, a 25-year old doctor, who had completed her MBBS and was preparing for the post-graduate exams, died in a road accident. Dr Parvathy Prasannakumar (this writer’s second cousin) passed away after the car she was travelling in collided with a bus.
The daughter of two doctors, Parvathy was the pride of the extended family, whose members spoke of how kind and compassionate she was. What could be more tragic than a person dedicating years of her life to learn how to save lives, only to die in her mid-20s because of reckless driving?
Over the last year, this writer has visited Kerala for extended periods of time and spent more than two months in Kozhikode. One of the biggest lessons learned is to travel within the state by rail. Some cities, like Kannur, Kozhikode and Kochi, are easily accessible by train. It makes much sense to use the efficient railway network while travelling within Kerala, but there are also places that are far away from the railroads.
It’s mindboggling that a state with the highest literacy rate in India has so many motorists with such a poor road sense. There are private buses rushing at ridiculous speeds to collect passengers and having total disregard for other vehicles. Then there are those in two-wheelers on highways who suddenly stop to answer their phones. Of course, there are also the nouveau-riche in fancy cars who carry their entitlement with them when they dash off on the roads. Motorists from every walk of life are equally guilty when it comes to putting their own lives and those of others at risk on the roads of Kerala.
Government and the people
The state authorities woke up to this problem a decade and a half ago with the establishment of the Kerala Road Safety Authority (KSRA).
Among the most important activities carried out by the authority is road safety education for children. The authority also conducts public awareness campaigns about road safety, coordinates with various government bodies and identifies so-called hazardous zones to minimise accidents. There is a limit to what the authorities, however well-meaning they are, can do.
A people's movement is required to improve road safety in the state - a movement that will help bring about a behavioural change. Unless people from all sections of society become more conscious of the risks of reckless driving, we are going to continue to see this horrible trend of more than 40,000 (officially recorded) road accidents a year in Kerala. Sheer statistics don’t affect humanity as much as names and faces. Perhaps a campaign that talks about those who died because of reckless driving may just propel people to be more cautious.
Each one of those 27,872 people who died in a road accident between 2016 and 2022 had a story. These are the stories that motorists need to know more about. There will always be a small section of indifferent individuals who won’t be affected by such campaigns, but many others will. When it comes to road safety, a wider behavioural change is not just necessary, but essential for the future of Kerala.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)