Road crash victims require immediate attention; rescuers must not be hindered by authorities.
By the time you finish reading this, two individuals will have died on Indian roads. As of 2015, around 1,46,133 people were killed in this manner, making Indian roads the most dangerous in the world.
Moreover, according to the 201st Law Commission of India report on emergency medical care provided to accident victims, half of the fatalities could have been averted had the deceased received medical attention within the first 60 minutes, i.e., the “golden hour” period.
One of the main reasons for the high fatality figures is that bystanders on Indian roads often hesitate to help the seriously injured as they are concerned about the liability risks.
The risks are mainly in the form of legal and procedural hassles, which include intimidation by the police, unnecessary detention at hospitals and prolonged legal formalities.
A national survey conducted by SaveLIFE Foundation, which was funded by the Global Road Safety Partnership through the Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded Road Safety Grants Programme, revealed that three out of four people hesitated to assist victims of road crashes because of such associated risks (SaveLIFE Foundation, 2013).
In March 2016, the Supreme Court of India passed a historic judgement which gave “force of law” to guidelines issued by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, for the protection of Good Samaritans and standard operating procedures for their examination by police and during trial.
Sensing that the judgment itself would not change ground realities, the Supreme Court also directed the Central and state governments to ensure wide publicity of the provisions that protect Good Samaritans.
The decision of the Supreme Court to give legal teeth to the guidelines assumes significance because the Centre has always claimed that it has found it difficult to enforce guidelines in the absence of any statutory backing.
The law must ensure that three basic conditions are always clearly upheld a) Legally, there is no deterrent to citizens acting or assisting someone in need b) Creation of a “compensation culture” for loss or injury, or the rights of a Good Samaritan if something went wrong c) Minimisation of the liability or risk assumed by a Good Samaritan.
While the welfare and protection of a Good Samaritan is a relatively new concept in India, countries such as Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States of America have well-known and precisely established laws.
France and Germany have enacted laws that not only make it an obligation to help a person in need but also eliminate criminal liability arising due to any default.
Going further, the French law doesn’t impose any liability on a rescuer; on the contrary, there are strict laws and penalties for a bystander who witnesses an accident and doesn’t intervene. The punishment is five years imprisonment and a fine up to 75,000 euros. The German law imposes a fine or imprisonment up to one year for not assisting accident victims in certain circumstances.The sole purpose of such stringent legislation is to encourage citizens to help the seriously injured in every possible way, irrespective of any end result.
While drafting a Good Samaritan law, our lawmakers should not only focus on removing obstacles that might deter altruistic citizens from helping crash victims, but also raise awareness about first aid.
As mentioned earlier, the golden hour period must be spent on providing first aid in order to save the injured, and not to frame legal or prosecution charges. Thus, an attempt should be made to draft laws that help volunteers, community groups, businesses and people who step in heroically to help in dangerous circumstances.
Take, for example, the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Act (SARAH), 2015, of the United Kingdom. It protects people that have proper training in safety procedures against any fear of being penalised if an accident or injury occurs while they are trying to do the right thing.
SARAH requires courts to consider three factors when assessing negligence while hearing an action for negligence or breach of duty: whether the person “was acting for the benefit of society”, whether they “demonstrated a predominantly responsible approach towards protecting the safety ... of others” and whether they “were acting heroically by intervening in an emergency to assist an individual in danger”.
Section 51D of Ireland’s Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 protects Good Samaritans against liability charges in case of any negligence for any act done in emergency to help a person in serious and imminent danger. In the state of New South Wales and Victoria, Australia, a Good Samaritan is protected from personal civil liability with respect to anything done in a state of emergency or accident by virtue of the Civil Liability Act 2002 and Wrongs Act 1958 respectively.
Our Indian judiciary, through the landmark verdict penned by 21st Chief Justice of India, Ranganath Misra, in the case of Paramanand Katra vs. Union of India, also makes it obligatory for any citizen of India, a doctor or a hospital (public or private), to provide immediate emergency medical aid to a victim of a road accident: ‘The effort to save the person should be the top priority not only of the medical professional but even of the police or any other citizen who happens to be connected with the matter or who happens to notice such an incident or situation”(AIR 2039, 1989)
While the objective of introducing the Good Samaritan law is to minimise the interval between the time of the accident and the patient’s arrival at the nearest hospital, considerable research needs to be done to establish a strong correlation between the chances and the quality of survival with pre-hospital care.
A WHO report details a pilot project in which ‘first responders’ and ‘emergency response team’ training was imparted as part of development of pre-hospital capacity in areas of Cambodia and northern Iraq that have a high density of landmines. It involved giving 5,000 lay people a basic two-day training course in first aid, while paramedics (emergency response team) were given around 450 hours of formal training.
The project found that the mortality rate of the severely injured fell from 40 per cent before the project to nine per cent afterwards (WHO, 2004).
Similar pilot programmes involving training for lay “first responders” or others who are not healthcare professionals but who might have occasion to come upon injured people on a regular basis have taken place around the world including India. However, rigorous evaluation on the effects of such projects has been rarely documented.
Thus, the rising rates of road accidents coupled with the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in the SaveLIFE Foundation case has paved the way for the formulation of strong laws to curb such massacres on our roads. However, it is only when the remaining 28 states and 7 Union Territories of India successfully table legislation similar to the Karnataka Good Samaritan and Medical Professional Bill (Karnataka Legislative Assembly, 2016), that we could say whether the “force of law” is a real game-changer or not.
Time to help
(Vedant S Goyal is a road safety consultant to Bloomberg Philanthropies Initiative of Global Road Safety (BIGRS), firstname.lastname@example.org)