Accidents are on the rise, and the country still lacks a national road safety policy based on international best practices.
The recent death of Gopinath Munde in a road accident was a great tragedy. However, it did not come as a great shock to anyone familiar with the state of Indian traffic and roads. India loses hundreds of Gopinath Munde´s or Rajesh Pilot´s everyday on its roads. Every time such a tragedy occurs, solemn promises are made about´strong action´ that will be taken. However, road accidents keep on increasing year after year.
Words such as ´genocide´ are much misused today with authors using them as instruments to attract eyeballs towards their articles. However, in context of road safety environment prevalent in India such words are not just apt, they may be too mild. In year 2011, approximately 142,000 people died on Indian roads well ahead of any other country on Earth. China is a distant second in this ranking with approximately 62,000 deaths reported in 2011 despite having a much larger vehicular base. To put it another way, India loses more people in road accidents every year than in all the wars combined that it has fought since Independence.
While countries such as China have made concerted efforts to bring down road fatalities, India´s efforts have been weak and confused in comparison. The reason for this is that commuter safety is still not seen as a core principle of transport planning and management. A case in point is the Sundar Committee Report which had recommended drafting of a national road safety policy based on international best practices as far back as 2007. It has been seven years since then and the nation is still awaiting a comprehensive road safety policy.
Indian Roads Turning More Deadly
The result of this policy paralysis is that while China managed to reduce deaths due to road traffic injuries (RTIs) by a third over 2004-11 time period, the same increased by 54 per cent in India. Sadly, the situation is grim and turning grimmer by the day.
In 2002, 18.1 per cent of reported road accidents in India caused deaths. However, by 2011 this number had increased to 28.9 per cent. The numbers are even worse when we delve deeper into State-level data. In Mizoram, 83.5 per cent of reported accidents resulted in deaths. This number for Uttar Pradesh was 73.5 per cent and for Punjab 75.7 per cent. There are in all 7 States where more than 50 per cent of the reported accidents resulted in deaths. These figures are horrendous by any applicable metric. They signify that there are large swathes of our country where trauma services are non-existent and being involved in a major road accident is as good as being dead.
Cost of Road Traffic Injuries
Kate McMahon and Said Dahdah of International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP) published a paper estimating the true costs of road accidents. Applying their findings to the Indian context, the cost of road crashes in India would come out to be approximately $20 billion in 2011. This figure is approximately 2 per cent of India´s GDP, roughly equal to our defence funding and more than double of national science funding.
However, even this estimate may be a severe underestimation of the cost of road accidents in India. One of the biggest critique of such estimates is that because of lack of good medical & rehabilitation facilities in India, road crash victims suffering disability suffer greater lack of economic opportunities than such estimates care to admit. In addition, on account of limited rehabilitation facilities available, families of injury victims have to spend much more time looking after injury victims which causes greater economic loss. Hence road accidents not only cripple and kill people involved in the accidents; they exact heavy economic and emotional cost on the society.
The emotional costs of such accidents are exacerbated by the suddenness of the act. While the onset of death or disability due to any disease is gradual, allowing the friends & family of the victim time to psychologically prepare themselves for the eventual tragedy, in case of road accidents the suddenness of events causes trauma that exacts a heavy toll.
Where we go wrong
A number of commentators have been advocating various strategies for reducing deaths & injuries due to road accidents. However, most of the proposed strategies revolve around more of the same. Higher fines, cancellation of license of errant driver, tougher sentences for repeat offenders etc. These strategies have been tried from time to time from but don´t seem to stem the rising tide of accidents. The need of the hour is to take a long, hard look at our traffic management practices and make safety a priority from the planning and design stage itself. Following are some suggestions which can go a long way in reducing traffic related casualties.
Make Safety Number One Priority in Transport Planning & Road Designs
A quick anecdote: In 1997 Swedish Parliament passed a law dubbed ´Vision Zero´ Plan. This plan committed Sweden to eliminating road fatalities and injuries. The result of this law was that while cars in circulation in Sweden have doubled since 1970, the number of road deaths has fallen by four-fifths. As of 2013, only five Swedes were dying per 100,000 vehicles plying on Swedish roads. Same number for India stood at 351 i.e., an average Indian commuter is 70 times more likely to die on an Indian road than a Swede on Swedish roads.
Planning plays a huge part in reducing accidents. Roads in Sweden are built with safety as primary priority as against India where traffic capacity & cost management takes precedence over most other concerns. Low urban speed-limits, pedestrian zones, lane separation barriers and safe pedestrian crossings dramatically reduce traffic casualties. However, outside of major metros, these essential road safety features are seen as expensive frills which can be done away with. National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) chairman R P Singh, in a recent interview, admitted that NHAI engineers were forced to knock off essential safety features, such as underpasses, from highway designs to keep the construction cost of highways under check. Indian transport planning authorities, both at the State and Central levels, need to make safety the central focus of any road planning/design activity else the number of casualties on Indian roads will continue to rise.
Concentrate Resources in Trouble Spots
One of the biggest reasons for lack of success of past programmes to reduce accidents has been misplaced concentration of resources. Take for example location of traffic police and trauma services. Government statistics reveal that national and State highways account for around 7 per cent of India´s road length but account for approximately 65 per cent of accident related deaths and injuries. However, if you study the pattern of deployment of trauma services (such as ambulances) and traffic police, almost all the resources are concentrated in urban areas.
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The author, Anshuman Chauhan, is an infrastructure industry professional with experience in the field of transportation, power and real estate projects. Currently, he is working with the corporate finance practice of Indus Concessions