New Delhi: About half of Delhi’s drivers illegally use mobile phones at the wheel, according to recent estimates, but the Delhi Traffic Police booked just 43 such cases every day last year, a negligible 0.24% of the 17,753 challans it handed out daily, records show.
A road safety survey conducted in Delhi about two years back revealed that 47% of the respondents admitted to regularly making or receiving calls while driving.
Across India, 3,172 of about 147,000 people who died in road accidents in 2017 lost their lives because of using mobile phones while driving, show statistics by the ministry of road transport and highways. Overall, mobile phone usage caused 8,526 accidents and left 7,830 people injured, according to the data. Experts say the numbers are much lower than the actual figures as the exact cause of the accident is left out in many police complaints.
Piyush Tewari, founder of SaveLife Foundation (SLF), the group that conducted the road safety survey, says the situation has been worsening as motorists are compulsively using social media on the go and are not able to resist the urge to reply instantly.
“The drivers are using their mobile phones not only to communicate, but also to entertain themselves while driving in the city. The usage is leaving them distracted manifold now,” he said.
Officers in the traffic police point to a host of “practical problems” that plague the crackdown on mobile phone users on the streets. Joint commissioner of police (traffic) Alok Kumar says that detecting the violators is the biggest challenge.
A traffic police head constable, posted at west Delhi’s Cariappa Marg, says: “Unlike motorcyclists riding without helmets or vehicles jumping the traffic signal, which can be sighted from far, mobile phone use can be detected only when they are very close.”
The situation has only slightly improved over the past five years. Between 2014 and 2016, only a dozen such violators were getting prosecuted every day. The prosecutions picked up in 2017, but continued to remain a miniscule number in a city that has more than 10 million vehicles.
In a number of high-income countries such as the United States, New Zealand, Australia and some European countries, 60–70% of drivers report using a mobile phone at some point while driving, according to a report by the World Health Organization.
Drivers using mobile phones are four times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers not using the device, the report adds.
In Delhi, the Savelife Foundation study found that 20% of the respondents were almost involved in an accident or ended up crashing their vehicles because of using a mobile phone while driving. The percentage of those who witnessed or knew of such mishaps stood at 43%.
According to Sewa Ram, a road safety expert and a professor of transport planning at School of Planning and Architecture, the statistics on road deaths caused by mobile phone usage are not a real representation of the situation on the ground.
“If a motorist dies after being hit from the rear by another vehicle whose driver was using a mobile phone, the investigator lists it as a death caused by ‘hit from behind’. Rarely is mobile phone usage noted as a trigger behind the mishap. This is mainly because there is no evidence of mobile phone usage when the investigator begins probing the cause,” says Ram.
The police say the problem is compounded when motorcyclists conceal the phones inside their helmets.
While most of these motorists get away before they can be flagged down by the police, most others drop the device after being spotted and deny using it. “They will refuse to unlock their phones or delete the call record, leaving us with little evidence,” says another police officer.
Kumar says that confronting such motorists can often lead to quarrels, something that the traffic police officers want to avoid on the streets.
What makes prosecution even more difficult is the increasing use of hands-free devices by motorists. “Technology is working to the violators’ advantage. Bluetooth devices are equally damaging, but even more difficult to detect,” says Kumar.
Tewari says that the hands-free devices are only “partially” safer than hand-held phones while driving. “Hands-free use of phones may not cause physical distractions, but they distract the mind, reducing the response time” says Tewari.
He says that research has shown that motorists are generally able to keep a track of three vehicles in front, but while using hands-free devices, their attention is limited to the bumper of the vehicle in front of them.
A study by a researcher at University of South Carolina says talking and listening on even a hands-free phone device distracts drivers. Compared to simply listening, speaking or preparing to speak distracts people four times more, the research adds.
Tewari says that the misuse of technology will have to be met by effective use of technology by the Delhi Traffic Police. “The police will have to employ automatic number-plate recognition (ANPR) cameras that can capture images of mobile phone users even in the dark,” says Tewari.
Kumar says that his force is in the process of procuring the cameras. “We are also falling back on our motorcycle-borne officers who chase and catch mobile phone users,” says the officer.
The menace continues, although the offence attracts a fine of Rs 1,000 the first time and Rs 2,000 on subsequent detections. This is a higher penalty than most other traffic offences and the motorists also lose their driving licence for three months, but that doesn’t appear to be a deterrent.
The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill of 2016 has proposed a penalty of Rs 5,000 for the first time offence, but it has only brought hand-held devices in its ambit.