CHENNAI, India — When it opened in 2001, the East Coast Road in southern India gave drivers a smooth, modern link to coastal resorts and an open stretch of highway to gun their engines on weekends.
The 425-mile road also is a glaring example of why, with just 1 percent of the world’s automobiles, India accounts for 15 percent of global traffic deaths, according to the World Bank.
In 2013, there were 174 accidents on the East Coast Road, and 24 people died. So many men from the villages flanking the road have been run over by speeding vehicles and drunk drivers in the past decade that their bereaved wives are called “ECR widows.”
India has some of the deadliest roads in the world, with more than 200,000 fatalities every year, according to the World Health Organization. The nation’s Supreme Court calls India’s roads “giant killers.” Experts say that many of the accused go free because of weak and outdated motor vehicle regulations, routine corruption, lagging investigations and painfully slow court trials.
Amid rising middle-class anger and activism, the government began overhauling road safety rules last year, adding stiff penalties such as a roughly $4,600 fine and seven years in prison for reckless driving that results in the death of a child. But two months ago, officials rewrote the proposed legislation to lower the penalties, saying India cannot imitate the developed world. In the most recent revision, the penalty for reckless driving involving the death of a child, for example, was lowered to a $780 fine and a one-year prison term.
“It is not possible to replicate 100 percent of the road safety laws of America, England or Canada in Indian conditions,” Nitin Gadkari, India’s minister of road transport and highways, said in an interview. “We have to look at our local conditions like density of population, road congestion, road quality, socioeconomic profile of our people. I do not want to impose such high penalties that it ruins poor people’s lives.”
As a result, critics say a watered-down version of the Road Transport and Safety Bill, which probably will be introduced in Parliament in July, will do little to improve safety. Punishments for speeding and drunken driving have been reduced, a limit has been set on compensation for accident victims, and the powers of the proposed road safety regulator were shrunk.
This month, some workers unions even urged Gadkari to cancel the mandatory level of education required for getting a driver’s license.
“I want to cut the number of road accident deaths by half by 2019, but it is not easy,” he said. “Some say go, others say stop; some put up obstacles or pull you backward.”
With rising affluence, owning a car in India has become easier. But bad driving habits, poor regulatory oversight and flawed road design are quite common. Speeding, running lights, drunken driving, riding motorcycles without helmets, and lane violations are rampant. According to officials, 25 percent of driver’s licenses in India are procured fraudulently.
“What began as an effort to bring a strong road safety law has slowly turned into a farce,” said Piyush Tewari, founder of SaveLife Foundation, a public advocacy group that works on road safety. “Everybody is lobbying to dilute the law as much as possible. The government has buckled under pressure.”
The truckers union threatened to protest. Automobile manufacturers objected to new vehicle recall rules — even though the best-selling new Indian cars failed a global crash test last year.
“If you keep the penalties high, then it opens the room for negotiations with policemen on the ground and will increase corruption,” said Naveen Gupta, secretary general of All India Motor Transport Congress. “You are opening up a Pandora’s box.”
In one of the most talked about cases, Indians were outraged this month that a court granted bail to Bollywood star Salman Khan as he appeals his conviction for driving over five homeless people sleeping on a sidewalk in Mumbai in 2002, killing one of them. Khan had originally been sentenced to five years in prison.
In Kabali Saravanan’s ECR neighborhood, his family watched the news on TV with horror. His wife, a seamstress, was killed by a speeding car in January while on her daily morning stroll along the edge of the road.
“There is one law for the poor people and another for the rich in this country,” said Saravanan, a rickshaw driver. The driver of the car that killed his wife, he said, was an 18-year-old son of a wealthy leather businessman who lives in a fancy beach house nearby. “What justice can I realistically expect in this country?”
The accused’s family declined to give an interview. Police said they have applied for suspension of the 18-year-old’s driver’s license, but the trial has not begun.
As India tried to bolster inadequate infrastructure by building new highways across rural areas in the past decade, very little money has been invested in driver education, road behavior, emergency response and trauma care. Many new roads do not have medians or reflectors.
The East Coast Road is dotted with weekend holiday hot spots, such as amusement parks, crocodile preserves, ancient coastal temples and beach resorts. On Sundays, biker gangs from the city turn the road into a drag strip.
“The city partygoers think the road belongs to them. They drive as if there are no villages and no people on either side of the road,” said Sumati Ravichandran, 35, an ECR widow in Vada Nemmeli village. Her husband lay there without any help for more than an hour.
Medical experts say that half of those who died in road accidents could have been saved if they were admitted to a hospital in the first hour. Fearing long court cases and police harassment, bystanders often hesitate to help accident victims. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered the government to pass a law to protect good Samaritans who rush accident victims to the hospital. But the government has not delivered.
Saravanan said the courts cannot bring his wife back. And he has little hope for justice.
“They will use every trick they know to keep their son out of jail. But what about my 7-year-old daughter who has been left motherless?” Saravanan said, sitting by his wife’s motionless sewing machine.