India has the highest number of road fatalities in the world, but, thanks to Rolex Young Laureate Piyush Tewari, accident victims now have a much greater chance of receiving care at the scene – and surviving.

Four years of innovative and dedicated advocacy by Rolex Young Laureate Piyush Tewari have culminated in a landmark decision by India’s Supreme Court that has the potential to reduce dramatically the country’s high road toll.

The court’s decision means bystanders can now offer care and assistance to road accident victims knowing they will not be penalized for doing so. Previously they were discouraged from playing the role of Good Samaritans due to fears of police harassment, becoming liable for victims’ medical bills and being drawn into prolonged court cases.

Leading Indian figures from the world of business, entertainment and politics have hailed the ruling, which enforces the guidelines developed by Tewari’s SaveLIFE road safety organization and adopted by the government of India. The guidelines are legally binding on all states and territories.

Path-breaking moment

“This is a path-breaking moment for India,” said Ajai Chowdhry, Indian co-founder of HCL, one of the world’s leading information technology companies. “For decades, citizens have been hesitant to help each other for fear of legal and procedural hassles. Not anymore. This feat of SaveLIFE will ensure there are no more victims on the road begging for help, but not getting any.”

Dr Shashi Tharoor, a member of parliament and former government minister, said the judgment was “great news for India”, while Kirron Kher, an actress and fellow member of parliament, commended SaveLIFE for “helping us get here”.

Tewari himself described the court’s ruling as “a big day for India”, one that had the potential to save at least 500,000 lives over the next decade.

Legal repercussions

“India suffers 150,000 road crash deaths a year, the highest number in the world, and, in the absence of emergency medical services, many lives that could be saved are lost – as many as 50 per cent, according to our research,” he said. “Bystanders and passers-by can play a life-saving role in these situations. But, because of legal repercussions, police intimidation and the possibility of being forced to pay the costs, they tend not to help.

“Until [the ruling] most states were treating the guidelines merely as an advisory,” he said, “but now non-compliance will be treated as contempt of court, making these guidelines as good as a law. The onus is now on state governments and union territories to ensure implementation of these guidelines.”

Tewari’s crusade to reverse India’s appalling road safety record began with his own personal tragedy. In 2008 he set up SaveLIFE after his 17 year-old cousin died as a result of a road accident. His cousin lay on a busy road unaided for more than 40 minutes before he died, despite asking bystanders for help.

Golden hour

Tewari said it was widely acknowledged that receiving medical help within the first “golden hour” after a major accident greatly increased the chance of survival. His research across India to determine why many bystanders were unwilling to help pinpointed the potential legal and financial repercussions of contacting the police, while some people said police believed witnesses were responsible for accidents.

SaveLIFE has grown rapidly since Tewari won his Rolex Award in 2010. The team now comprises 18 full-time staff, supported by up to 10 interns from law and public policy schools, and more than 3,000 volunteers across 10 Indian states. The foundation’s coalition of supporters includes high-profile national figures and international organizations, such as Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Global Road Safety Partnership.

Tewari and his team have worked doggedly to convince a previously reluctant government that laws governing road safety were in desperate need of overhaul. Their advocacy campaign, which continues, resulted in strong media coverage, questions being raised in India’s parliament, a petition signed by 100,000 people delivered to the health minister and a private member’s bill questioning the government’s stand.

Road deaths

Tewari’s formula of encouraging police officers and the general public in assisting road accident victims has also proved highly effective. In Delhi, where he launched his project, deaths from road accidents dropped by 30 per cent between 2010 and 2014 – from 2,325 to 1,600. “Measuring impact is key to our activities,” he said.

The foundation is also working closely with state governments. It has collaborated with the government of Maharashtra, for example, to adopt 100 km of highway where an average 150 deaths occur annually. “Our aim is to bring deaths down to zero by 2020,” Tewari said. “Similar interventions are taking place in various other parts of the country. And victims are getting rapid care from police and volunteers.”

Going forward, Tewari is keen for businesses to take a leading role in SaveLIFE’s activities. As part of this push, the foundation held a conference in April on the role companies can play in improving road safety in India.

“The government, while trying to act to improve road safety, has limited resources,” Tewari said. “Industry, on the other hand, has resources and reach. The Good Samaritan guidelines will only be effective if people know they have these rights. We want to ensure this word reaches the very last mile of India.”

Learn more about Piyush Tewari

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