By Soh Chin Ong on Feb 3, 2020
Nirmal Singh, from the city of Jalandhar in the north Indian state of Punjab, has been a truck driver for 40 years.
It is hard work, which sees him plying highways across India for weeks - sometimes months - on end. He drives at least 12 hours daily, alternating with his co-driver.
One day, on a rare trip home, Singh tuned into a cricket match on television. He could not see the numbers on the screen, so he asked his wife to tell him the score.
“She dragged me to the optometrist the next day. And that is when I got my first pair of spectacles,” he says.
That was 20 years ago and Singh, now 55, has not had his eyes tested since.
“I have not seen clearly for the last six months,’’ he confesses, pointing to his glasses, which are scratched and dirty.
Singh worries about his safety, and those of others on the road. For good reason.
India has one of the worst traffic accident records in the world. According to figures from the country’s Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, there is one road fatality every four minutes. About a quarter of these accidents involve heavy commercial vehicles, such as trucks and buses.
But a campaign called #DriveSafeIndia, run by Shell India and VisionSpring, a non-governmental organisation which aims to provide affordable glasses to people around the world, is helping drivers like him.
Eye-testing centres have been set up at truck stops, ports and other transport hubs where truck drivers congregate.
“This is really convenient for us because we are constantly on the road and don’t have time to get our eyes checked,’’ says Singh, who got in line at a truck stop in Bangalore, some 2,600 km away from his home, on a trip transporting apples from Kashmir.
Bernd Marx, Shell’s global general manager for road safety, says: “This campaign is especially important in India, where road fatalities are high. Shell takes the health and safety of our employees very seriously, so all our drivers get their eyes checked regularly. However, we know this is not necessarily the case for other drivers.’’
“About 70% of truck drivers have some vision problem, mild or acute,” says Anshu Taneja, head of VisionSpring in India. “The younger drivers are starting to experience myopia and are, therefore, getting their first pair of glasses. The older ones either need to replace their old spectacles or get reading glasses.’’
Since the start of the campaign in February 2019, Shell and VisionSpring have set up eye-testing centres across four states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Some 120,000 drivers have had their eyes tested and received 84,000 pairs of free prescription spectacles, mostly on the spot.
Drivers with more complex vision problems, such as astigmatism, are told to return at a later date to pick up their glasses. Suresh Pandey, from Uttar Pradesh, 1600 km away, is one of them.
“I do not know when I will be back this way again because I go where the work takes me. But I now have a prescription, so I can get glasses made on my own at the next stop,’’ he says.
Those with even more serious eye problems such, as cataracts, are directed to nearby hospitals and clinics for follow-up treatment which is outside the #DriveSafeIndia campaign.
According to the World Health Organization, 1.35 million people around the world die in road traffic accidents every year, with the figure increasing by 100,000 in the last three years. They are also the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of five and 29.
But efforts are being made to address the problem. In February 2020, representatives from 80 countries will meet at the Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety in Stockholm, Sweden, to set targets for road safety.
The #DriveSafeIndia campaign is also doing its part. Its work has been recognised with a Prince Michael International Road Safety Award, which acknowledges outstanding global achievements in reducing traffic accidents.
“We cannot control road conditions or monitor a driver’s speed or hours. But we can certainly help those who recognise they have vision issues and want to take responsibility for their own safety and that of others on the road,’’ says Nitin Prasad, chair of Shell India.
The campaign aims to conduct 365,000 eye tests by the end of 2020, expanding to other states and including more partners, he adds.
This will help more truck drivers like Singh, who is ready to hit the road with his new spectacles.
“I am very happy with them,’’ he says, as he drives off. “I cannot wait to show them to my wife.’’