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India's Transgender Community Turns Seat Belt Safety Into Video Hit

Members of India's transgender community, known as hijras, are now the stars of an entertaining advocacy campaign aimed at persuading India's motorists to buckle up.

The Seatbelt Crew, as the Mumbai-based hijras are known, has taken to the streets of the country's financial capital to cajole motorists to strap themselves in. Indian roads are treacherous and according to the World Health Organization only 27 percent of drivers wear a seat belt even though it's mandatory.

A familiar sight on Indian streets, hijras were recently recognized as part of a third gender in a landmark ruling by the country's Supreme Court. They can be found wending their way through traffic-choked roads, in their eye-catching saris and makeup. They alternate between flirtation and aggression begging for money.

The hijras are regarded by many motorists as a nuisance, but the new campaign cleverly projects them as entertainers who use humor to drive home a life-saving message.

The ad campaign, created by India Ogilvy, showcases a snappy routine enacted at a busy artery in Mumbai with the hijras explaining the importance of wearing a seat belt.

Dressed in smart uniforms, they mimic airline hostesses, squeezing between the lines of cars and clapping in unison as their leader belts out sassy instructions to drivers.

"Naughty girl," she squawks through a bullhorn, "tell your boyfriend to buckle up."

The traffic light turns green and motorists race past, snapping pictures of the unexpected new ambassadors of traffic safety.

It would seem that a public service campaign is in order. The World Bank says 380 people are killed in road crashes every day in India, and deaths from traffic injuries have been trending upward.

The grim statistic was driven home late last month when Gopinath Munde, a Cabinet minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new government, was killed in an early-morning car crash on the streets of New Delhi.

The hijras traditionally are viewed as auspicious, bestowing blessings on newlyweds and newborns. And their advocacy campaign to cut down on traffic fatalities appears to be a runaway hit: Since the public service announcement was launched online in early May, more than 4 million viewers have watched. Millions more have seen it on television.

"We are never scared to speak in front of a crowd or stand in the middle of traffic," said Lata Tai, 36. The Seatbelt Crew member added, "This time instead of asking for money we are [promoting] road safety."

You can follow NPR's Julie McCarthy on Twitter at: @JulieMcCarthyJM.

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