Vehicle vs Human Life in India: One Man’s War Against Road Deaths
Piyush Tewari’s SaveLIFE fought for years to bring about the ‘Good Samaritan’ law for helping road accident victims.
In April 2007, Piyush Tewari’s life changed forever. He was driving home after a normal day at work when his father called him to say that his first cousin had been hit by a vehicle when returning from school. A few people had witnessed the accident and some had watched the bleeding young boy by the side of the road asking for assistance, but no one had alerted the police, called an ambulance or driven him to hospital. The 16-year-old succumbed to his injuries on 5 April, his 16th birthday.
Piyush stopped and left his car near Dhaula Kuan — he was too shaken to drive — and took an auto back home. The same night, he left unreserved in a train for Kanpur where the accident took place and on visiting the site the next day, he learnt the facts. His young cousin had been hit by a jeep that was coming from the wrong end, and in his panic to flee on having hit the boy, the driver ran over him a second time, leading this time to grievous injuries. The boy dragged himself to the side of the road and was leaning against a tree, asking passersby for help.
In a white shirt, blue pants and black shoes with a schoolbag in tow, those who saw him in this state were in no doubt that he was just a schoolgoing kid.
Some threw water at him ostensibly to keep him awake and a few passersby did try to give him a sip of water, but nobody called for help or drove him to a hospital. After 40-45 minutes of non-stop bleeding, he died.
Fear of Legal Hassles Stopped People from Helping
The incident was so horrific and his relationship with his cousin so close that Piyush could not live with this. He had many questions that needed answers. He took a few months off from his work and started meeting people — policemen, including traffic cops, trauma care doctors, bureaucrats, emergency care workers, lawmakers — anyone who could help him find some answers. Ironically, when his cousin was only six months old, the family had lost another family member in a remarkably similar fashion.
As he went from pillar to post, Piyush learnt three main things: one, in the previous decade (1997-2007), one million people in India had died in road accidents and of these, almost 50 per cent died despite having treatable injuries. He also discovered that the inaction of the public, including in the case of his cousin, was driven more by fear of entanglement with the police and the legal system rather than apathy. In most cases, the person who helped was treated as the accused, the presumption by the police and other authorities being, “Why would you help unless you caused it?”
He also learnt another chilling fact: there were many families like his who had lost family members to several road accidents. What he thought was a freak coincidence was fairly commonplace in India.
It was at this point that Piyush decided that he could no longer live with all this. Someone needed to step in and at least try to change the system, and that someone was willy nilly going to be him.
From February 2008 To July 2012
Nine months after the accident, he registered the SaveLIFE foundation, a self-explanatory epithet for a society that would work for this cause. Initially, he continued his work with his company, where he’d been elevated to managing director and was responsible for 600 employees, but by 2011, he realised that if he wanted to make a dent, he needed to invest 200% of his time. SaveLIFE had started training the police and working with others to spread awareness, but he’d also realised that there was no light at the end of this tunnel unless India put in place some kind of good samaritan law that insulated people from legal and procedural complications if they stepped in to help somebody in need.
Simultaneously, the foundation managed to convince the Delhi Police to train its staff to improve response and life-saving techniques like CPR, trauma care, and so on. At the time, the ambulance services were inadequate across the city and the country and the police were usually the first responders. Every weekend, the foundation began to train 100 policemen, after senior officers like S.B. Deol endorsed and helped smoothen the way.
Meanwhile, Piyush also started systematically documenting road accidents in Delhi, the city with the dubious distinction of having the highest number of road deaths every year. He also started meeting people across the spectrum with proposals for a good samaritan law. He strengthened his foundation with the inclusion of stalwarts and heavyweights like G.K. Pillai, Indu Malhotra and Krishan Mehta, who could use their influence to add heft to the cause.
Galvanising Support and the Economic Brunt of Road Accidents
By July 2012, Piyush found he had many assurances but very little action on the ground. That’s when they decided to go in for disruptive action and moved the Supreme Court with a writ petition highlighting the main issue, providing data on possible lives that could be saved and detailing the failure on the part of the government in preventing such loss of lives. The SC accepted the petition, but the government of the day did its level best to oppose it. The courts set up a committee to hear both sides but at this stage, Piyush realised that the movement had to go beyond the courts.
From 2013 onwards, SaveLIFE started an all-out campaign to galvanise support for its cause. The costs of road accidents were quickly estimated (presently, the cost of road crashes in India is estimated at 3% of GDP, ₹4.3 lakh crores in current GDP value) and highlighted to anyone willing to listen. Actor Aamir Khan hosted a Satyamev Jayate episode on the subject, as did various news and television channels. MPs listened and agreed to support. The media was just as supportive. “No matter who I spoke to, they couldn’t argue with the merit: save lives and money,” explains Piyush. But acknowledging what needs to be done and getting it done are two very different things.
The Good Samaritan Law And Zero Fatality Corridors
Eventually, in 2015, after many twists and turns, the court submitted that preservation of life was “paramount” and no procedure should come in the way of saving a life. On 30 March, 2016, nine years after his cousin’s passing, the SC directed the government to institute a nationwide, binding good samaritan law that would insulate anyone who tries to help from legal or procedural hassles at hospitals, courts or police stations. It took till 31 July, 2019, for the government to enact this into law, passed through Parliament in both Houses.
Even as the battle to get the law passed was gaining currency, in 2014, the foundation began to push for a good road safety law and better road design and best practices. A good samaritan law was required but one could do even better by preventing crashes in the first place.
Work started and continues on comprehensive road safety laws and practices, including tackling poor design and engineering, lack of emergency care on roads, better licensing requirements and forensic investigation of road crashes.
As awareness grew, corporates, Red Cross, Tata Trusts and other organisations started taking interest and sponsoring more “zero fatality corridors” set up by SaveLIFE. In 2016, it adopted the 94.5-kilometre Mumbai-Pune expressway, which was among the deadliest with an average of recorded deaths of 151 per year due to crashes, and managed to bring it down over three years to under 70 per year (2019). In 2020, it adopted the Yamuna Expressway, another deadly stretch where 700 deaths have occurred in over 5,000 crashes since 2012.
Although SaveLIFE has won many minor battles, Piyush is acutely aware of the fact that this is just the beginning. No answers are available for his aunt who lost two family members, but for every life his foundation has managed to save, there is another life lost needlessly somewhere in India. His mission is to change that.
(Anjuli Bhargava is a senior writer and columnist based in Goa.)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.