Jaspal Bhatti accident puts spotlight on deaths due to lax seat belt norms

The death of satirist Jaspal Bhatti in a car accident has once again brought to fore the gaping flaw in the motor vehicles safety provisions. Though the law had made it mandatory for motor vehicles to provide seat belts in rear seats, traffic officials say the law is yet to be implemented even in major cities.

Doctors of the Civil Hospital, Jalandhar, who performed Bhatti's autopsy say the impact of injury could have been less had he fastened his rear seat belt. Incidentally all the front seat passengers had survived the accident. According to Dr Sanjay Khanna, medical officer at the hospital, Bhatti suffered a skull fracture in the parietotemporal region, which had formed a huge clot. He had also sustained multiple rib fractures.

Dr M C Misra, chief of AIIMS trauma centre in Delhi, said there have been cases where the rear seat occupants who fastened their seat belts were saved. "But a child seated between them went flying out of the front of the car. Without seat belts in the rear seats, in an accident, the heads of the passengers may collide, leading to grievous injuries," he said.

Section 125 of the Central Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989, made it mandatory for vehicle makers to install seat belts both in front and front-facing rear seats and Section 138 made it "imperative" for the driver and the persons seated in the front seat and front-facing rear seats to fasten their seat belts when the vehicle is in motion. Till 1994, the rules were restricted to front seat passengers. But in 2002, it was extended to reat seats. While no penalties were prescribed for violations, unless otherwise specified, Rs 100 can charged as penalty for violating any of the stipulated rules.

But road safety experts say the legislation is not being enforced mainly because the awareness levels of regulators are low. Dr Rohit Baluja, president of the Delhi-based Institute of Road Traffic Education and Director of the College of Traffic Management, said though automobile companies have started providing seat belts for all seats, we can see 4-5 people squeezing themselves in a three-seater. "Hardly any traffic cop know about the rule and, despite our training, nobody is booked," he said.

Joint Commissioner, Traffic, of Delhi Police Satyendra Garg says in Delhi, it is not mandatory for passengers on rear seats to fasten seat belts. "Since the speed limit on Delhi highways is 70kmph, wearing rear seat belts was not made mandatory for commuters," he said. Garg said prosecution is not the need. "We need people to imbibe a sense of security," he said.

In Punjab, traffic experts say that in spite of increased surveillance to monitor mortality in road accidents, rear seat belts have not been the priority area. Pritpal Singh, a Punjab-based road traffic expert, said, "Of the total challans issued for not wearing seat belts, we have barely issued 100 challans for the entire state for rear seat belts."

Representatives of many automobile companies say that seat belts are actually more important in back seats. A Sudeep Narayan, Volvo Auto India Marketing and PR Director, said though the concept of seat belts was first introduced in India by the company in 1953, back seat belts are still a novel concept.

"In cars, seat belts play a larger role than air bags in preventing injuries," he said. According to Mayak Pareek, COO (marketing and sales) of Maruti Suzuki, the number of passengers should not be more than the designated capacity so that everyone can wear their seat belts.

While trauma centres in India have performed many studied on two-wheeler accidents and the need for helmets, data on fatalities of rear seat passengers is hard to come by. According to Dr S N Mathuriya, incharge of head trauma and neurosurgery at the PGI Chandigarh, trauma centre, said 90 per cent of rear seat passengers in India do not wear seat belts.

— With inputs from Ananya Bhardwaj

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