Shifting Uday’s Burden to Budo’s Shoulders

More than 95% of traffic deaths have nothing to do with alcohol. The recent Supreme Court decision does not solve the problem, and hurts the innocent.

An old Bengali colloquialism goes “Udor Bojha budor ghaarey chapano”. It translates to “Shifting Uday’s burden to Budo’s shoulders.” The Supreme Court’s decision in December to ban all liquor sales within 500 metres of national and state highways  fits that description.

The SC took this drastic step in the hopes that it would reduce the number of road accidents. It is undoubtedly true that India leads the world in road accidents, and it suffers massive losses as a result. Some models suggests that up to 3 per cent of GDP is lost every year due to road accidents. That’s equivalent to over $58 billion in value terms.

It is also true that India has a very poor vehicle-penetration-to-fatalities ratio. India has roughly one-sixth as many vehicles on the road as the US, and roughly four times as many Indians die every year in fatal accidents. In crude terms, that means that travelling on an Indian road is about 24 times as dangerous as travelling on an American road.

The Supreme Court (SC) cited data from the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, which publishes an annual handbook of traffic accidents. The latest data is from 2015 when 1,46,133 persons died in road accidents across India. Of these, a total of 51,204 persons were killed in road accidents on National Highways and another 39,352 deaths occurred on state highways. So, over 61 per cent of the fatalities did occur on highways.

The handbook reckons that 6,755 fatal accidents in total (not just on highways) were caused by alcohol/drug usage. The SC also reckons that there was some under-reporting on this account. Well, that works out to about 4-5 per cent of all fatal accidents where alcohol was attributed as a proximate cause.

Is driving under the influence an offence? Yes, it is. Whose job is it to prevent driving under influence (DUI)? Law enforcement authorities. In a broader sense, whose job is it to ensure that drivers are sufficiently skilled to avoid accidents? The Motor Vehicles departments of states which are supposed to conduct tests and hand out licenses (or not if the driver is unskilled and ignorant).

A lot of DUI does occur and some of it clearly has fatal consequences. But a far larger number of traffic deaths (over 95 per cent) are due to errors caused by what may be described as sober, unskilled driving.

It might be reasonable to suggest that the law enforcement authorities and the licensing authorities don’t do a great job. In dignified officialese, these government departments fail to perform their appointed tasks with optimal efficiency.

Policy solutions should revolve around trying to figure out why these departments under-perform, and finding ways in which performance on this front could be improved. For example, the government could:

a] Reward individual officers and departments if the drivers they license have low accident rates.

b] Beef up alcohol testing by setting up squads to patrol highways and administer tests.

c] Improve road design to reduce dangerous crossing points.

Civilised nations allow the free sale of alcohol from multiple distribution points, including bars and off-shops that are conveniently placed on highways. Nevertheless, civilised nations also have far fewer problems with DUI. That’s because law enforcement is more efficient and less corrupt by definition, and comes down hard on DUI offenders.

Even in India, pockets like Mumbai, Chennai and Pune have seen significant reduction in DUI because law enforcement does a reasonable job of nailing offenders. People take designated drivers along when they intend to go drinking in those places.

Civilised nations also have more stringent driving tests. Anecdotally, I know several NRIs who failed their first driving test in Europe or North America despite being highly experienced Indian drivers.

Civilised nations also have insurers who set premia based on the probability of an accident, or the track record of the driver. A 35-ish soccer mom in a suburban SUV pays much less insurance than an 18-year-old in a Ferrari. A driver with ‘no claims’ pays much less than a driver with accidents, or traffic violations on the record. It all adds up to much higher safety standards and, ultimately, to fewer deaths.

Instead of looking for policy solutions involving law enforcement, insurance and motor vehicles departments, this ban will put 1 million people in the hospitality industry out of employment. The burden of failure by regulatory authorities and law enforcement is therefore, being shifted to the hospitality industry, which is where we came in.

That much employment can’t be nuked without some impact on GDP statistics. There will be adverse knock-on effects, of course, for liquor manufacturers, realtors, FMCG manufacturers, etc. This will eventually show up as a slowdown, or as an expected acceleration that did not happen.

The ban is unlikely to change drunk driving habits on the highways. A driver who wishes to tank up will find ways to tank up until such time as law enforcement makes the cost of tanking up unacceptable. India has extensive experience with Prohibition laws. A parallel economy will soon be built around supplying liquor on every highway.

In passing, another little thought. In a civilised nation, every government affected by the ban would have gone back to the SC and asked for the ban to be held in abeyance while promising to improve law enforcement and licensing processes to reduce DUI-related accidents. What sort of government lets a million jobs and stacks of associated revenue drop through the cracks because it cannot be bothered to improve its regulatory and law enforcement processes?

This is not a rhetorical question. Every state not already under Prohibition is affected. Each and every political formation in India promises to generate employment when it’s seeking votes. Not one of them can be bothered to pull up their socks in practice when it comes to protecting the jobs of innocents.

About the author

Devangshu Datta

Devangshu Datta is a columnist. His Twitter bio says "Carnivorous, right-winger. Interests = markets, science, history, chess, bridge, sex, religion and anything with high troll-quotient. " That pretty much covers it.