Reacting to the tragic death of former Union minister Gopinath Munde’s in a road accident, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan is reported to have hinted that the government might make fastening seat belts for those travelling in cars compulsory. While well-intentioned, the law alone is unlikely to be effective, given such a provision for the driver and the front-seat passenger is rarely followed in practice. Burdened with other duties in regulating traffic in metropolitan towns, policemen also give enforcing the law low priority. Moreover, most people think rear seat belts serve only a decorative purpose.
Munde’s case is not the only one in which not wearing a seat belt while sitting in the rear resulted in death. The most notable case was that of Princess Diana who died in 1997. It was later confirmed that of the four inmates in the ill-fated car, the lone survivor, bodyguard Trevor Rees Jones, owed his escape to the fact that he wore a seat belt. Seat belts may not offer the protection that costly safety accessories like side and front airbags do in most modern cars, but they restrain passengers from colliding with the windscreen or the seat in front and also help minimise whiplash injury in the event of a collision. They are a very basic safety feature that all passengers in cars must start using consciously in Indian traffic conditions.
Munde’s death must serve to encourage Indians to wear seat belts in cars and helmets while riding two-wheelers. It is true that making use of these safety accessories compulsory and enforcement of rules by overworked traffic police will not serve the purpose as much as willing use. However, as the Indian experience shows, it is by strict preliminary enforcement that awareness spreads. It would also help if the law required all car manufacturers to sell only vehicles fitted with airbags. Simultaneously, the government must launch a sustained multi-media campaign to educate people on safety protocols while driving.