First-world cars, third-world driving: Why India must privatise licences

First-world cars, third-world driving: Why India must privatise licences

By ARVIND KALA | 7 November, 2015
Road crashes also happen because a bribe enables lakhs of incompetent drivers to buy a driving licence.
Indian roads are dotted with sickening crashes that kill around 380 people a day. How can India reduce this enormous toll? The solution is simple. Privatise the giving of driving licences to India’s auto companies. They will do an infinitely better job than our government-run Road Transport Offices (RTOs).
This partial privatisation doesn’t mean closing down the RTOs, which are India’s sole authority to give a driving licence. Privatisation only means diluting the government’s driving-licence monopoly, and allowing India’s auto sector to set up parallel driving-licence offices. To test an applicant’s driving skills rigorously before giving or denying him a driving licence.
India’s auto companies are global players today. Their cars, buses and trucks sell overseas. Companies like Maruti, Mahindra, Tata Motors, Toyota, Hyundai, Ford, or General Motors have expertise. They are qualified to assess how well or badly an applicant drives.
So driving-licence companies run by India’s top auto sector will give driving licences only to those who’ll be safe on Indian roads. And not to any unskilled driver or two-wheeler rider with money in an envelope. Slowly, with the passage of years, India’s road crashes will reduce as the roads fill up with a new class of driver who is safe and skilful behind the wheel of a car. 
Make no mistake about India’s road-crash deaths. They are largely caused by over-speeding. Every road-accident study in India shows that. And the road crashes happen because a bribe enables lakhs of incompetent drivers to buy a driving licence.
Making roads safer is a crying need in India. Compare India with the US. The US has six times more motorised vehicles than India. But India sees four times more road-crash fatalities. Our road-accident fatalities were 141,000 last year. They were only 32,719 in the US (source: Wikipedia). The 2014 roads deaths in Britain were just 1,775 (source: UK’s Department of Transportation). 
While our road-crash rate remains virtually the same, the rate in the US or Britain drops every year. New York today sees fewer crashes today than when counting began in 1910. So it is with the rest of the developed world, including China. 
Roads overseas are safe because driving tests are so rigorous that it’s routine for aspirants to fail two-three times before passing a driving exam. First, the applicant undergoes a detailed theory exam where he is bombarded with questions like: How do you check a car’s brake oil? Its brake oil? Its battery?
Then comes the driving test. The applicant fails if he starts a car without opening a side-view mirror. He fails if he approaches a roundabout too fast. Or too slow. He fails if he doesn’t glance at his rear-view and side-view mirrors constantly. He fails if he tail-gates even for a moment. Which means driving too close to a car in front. He fails if he doesn’t park his car just a few inches from a kerb and parallel to it.
He fails if he cannot reverse and squeeze his car between two cars parked closely together. A driving examiner assessor can then ask the candidate to drive slowly up a steep road, park, and stop on the side. Then the instructor will get down and place a flimsy match-box right up under the car’s rear tyre. Then he’ll get into the front seat and ask the aspirant to start the parked car and move forward. If the car rolls back an inch and crushes the match-box, the candidate fails.
By the time a motorist clears the exam, his driving becomes flawless. No wonder roads in developed nations are so safe. In contrast, India’s unskilled drivers get driving licences easily and become lethal unguided missiles on India’s roads, sitting behind the wheel of a 2,000-kilo car going at 60-80 km per hour. We have first-world cars and third-world driving. 
The government monopoly over giving driving licences has turned the RTOs into a lucrative industry. At least 1.15 crore driving licences were given in India in 2010, according to the then Joint Secretary in the Transport Ministry. He added another 45 lakh driving licences were renewed annually (source: Times of India, 4 April 2012). 
Every licence or licence renewal means under-the-table payments that amount to hundreds of crores every year. Any move to dilute the government’s monopoly will spark a revolt in the RTOs. 
If set up, India’s driving-licence privatisation will bring international driving standards to our roads. It’s a long road ahead. But if there’s one minister who can implement this, it’s the dabangg Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, who is both quick, dynamic, and persuasive enough to push a new idea through our sluggish officialdom.
If set up, auto company driving-licence offices should be free to set their own price. Let them charge what they wish for a driving licence. Competition between the auto companies will lower prices. The consumer will benefit. Sadly, when we see a figure of 141,000 deaths a year on Indian roads, the toll doesn’t register. As Stalin once said, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. In reality, the deaths and maiming from road crashes ruin tens of thousands of Indian families. The families plunge into poverty
Not just that. Road-crash deaths and injuries even hurt a nation’s economy. They cost around 5% of a poor nation’s GDP, says the International Road Assessment Programme (IRAP). IRAP adds that a dead or maimed 17-year-old ends up costing more than an 80-year-old.
Is a driving-licence privatisation possible? Why not? Two examples are aviation and telecom. Private airlines didn’t displace Air India. Private telecom companies didn’t replace BSNL. In the same way, a Tata or Mahindra driving-licence company won’t replace the RTOs. Both will co-exist.
The RTOs will continue to give out driving licences. So will the new private companies. But I expect one thing to happen. The greater credibility of private driving licences will steadily wipe out the driving-licence business of the RTOs. 
This will happen for two reasons. Like all parents, Indian parents want their growing children to be safe. So they’ll insist that the children get their driving skills tested and approved by a private driving-licence company before giving them the family car.  Private driving-school offices will also attract salaried car drivers whose livelihood comes from driving a sahib around. Our cities have lakhs of these professional drivers. A private driving licence will make it easier for them to find a driver’s job. Thanks to the licence’s greater worth in the eyes of an employer. 
Arvind Kala is a free-lance writer, which he says is a euphemism for being unemployed.
1. 141,000 people died on Indian roads last year in 2014. When 141,000 is divided by 365 days in a year the figure comes to 386 people a day.
2. The failure rate of driving-licence applicants in Britain comes from the UK’s ­government’s online statistics.

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