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Road safety infra: Towards a mission in safety

Road safety infra: Towards a mission in safety

The patronage of road transport will continue to dominate the transport scene in India as in the rest of the world, with serious implications on safety unless infrastructure is made safe. The road pull for both passenger and goods movement is expected to be even higher in coming years with the implementation of the highly ambitious road development programme. A significant part of this high speed road development is being delivered within the first two decade of this century. PK Sikdar and J N Bhavsar take stock of road safety environment in India, and explain why the critical 3Es need more Es.

While the giant road development programme in India is supposed to be building world-class roads at a cost comparable to those in the developed world, it is believed that these are expected to be delivered as the best in terms of their safety performances. However, the performance of these roads in the last decade could not fulfil this promise, as road safety scenario has become worse. A careful study of engineering and operational arrangements will show some of the glaring shortcomings, which need to be addressed in the design and implementation.

In a deficient road and traffic environment, accidents are mainly linked to poor road geometry and poor traffic control aggravated by extremely poor or absence of traffic sense. The records of road accidents are supposed to provide the best clue about what has been deficient in the road-vehicle-road user system to explain the causes of accident for developing remedial measures. However, the road system and the traffic operations in India lack authentic and reliable feedback mechanism, leading to very little opportunity to learn from the mistakes. Untrained policemen collect incomplete records, that too of fatal accidents alone, mostly stating the cause of accident to be as road user's fault.

Safety hazards on Indian roads

Road traffic accidents constitute the highest percentage, around 32 percent, of all the accidental deaths in India, and stand at several times higher than that due to rail and air traffic accidents. Road traffic deaths and injury in India are shown in Table 1.

Worldwide more than 200 crore motor vehicles are in use, and 13.2 crore of those vehicles plied on the Indian roads in 2010. However, 70 per cent of it is the most vulnerable (in terms of safety of operation) two-wheelers. In comparison to the developed world, India has very low vehicle ownership and so far had extremely low mobility. However, demand for road travel is currently growing faster than the average income of the population or the rate of growth in GDP. The motor vehicle population is expected to grow at 10 per cent per annum and by 2021, 21 crore more vehicles are expected to be added to the current fleet. Figure 1 shows the trend of registered motor vehicles and deaths due to road accidents in India.

With 127,000 (2009) deaths per year, India stands first in the list of road traffic fatalities and 10th in the list of fatality rates (fatalities per 100,000 population), as shown in Figure 2.

Scale of the problem

It is estimated that the country loses around Rs 75,000 to 100,000 crore (estimated) annually due to road traffic accidents, while the burden of road accidents worldwide is $518 billion (approximately Rs 24 lakh crore). European countries reduced the number of fatalities by almost 50 percent over the 1990s, while the same decade saw a 50 percent increase in fatality in India. Only 43,000 were killed in European Union (combined in 15 countries) while 3.5 million were injured in 2000. There is little doubt that accidents are related to traffic flow levels (i.e. exposure), although this relationship is hard to establish in Indian context, as the density of traffic except in major metropolitan cities is very low, yet the fatality is very high. It is rather the engineering deficiencies leading to poor finished quality along with the poor management of the road and traffic system has given rise to this problem. Thus, extremely low level of traffic discipline due to low level of enforcement is the primary cause of this man-made disaster which continues to wipe out a sizeable population every year that is equivalent to a small size city. With the current level of rigour in planning, design and management, the future of road safety in India can only be projected to be very bleak.

As shown in Table 2, the first five states contribute 51 per cent of total fatalities whereas the next five states contribute
26 per cent of total fatalities in the country. Depending on the vehicle population, road density, terrain, etc., the road deaths on National Highways (NH) in various states are different. However, with similar network size and traffic, the number of fatalities on NH per 100 km of NH in Haryana, Tamil Nadu, and Madhya Pradesh are significantly different.

Characteristics of road accidents

About two-third of the total fatalities in India occur on highways. The main constraint in making the road network safe is that the relatively high-speed roads are also not free from mixed traffic as these are neither fully access controlled nor is the slow traffic segregated to service roads or separate lanes. Expressways are being built with full access control, but these are only a few hundred km so far. Over the last one decade, large portions of the National and State Highways (NH and SH) have seen dramatic improvement in capacity (through four-laning) and in their riding quality. Thus the share of fatalities on NH, SH and other roads shows a changing pattern over the years with an increase in fatalities on NH and SH from 1991 to 2001 and then some stabilisation from 2001, possibly due to the improvements as seen in Figure 3. However, the actual number of fatalities for these roads is growing unabated.

Characteristics of the road safety problems in India indicate a strong need of a national level road safety campaign to address all the aspects, viz. enforcement, awareness, education and engineering measures as the uniform requirements of road traffic system.

Road safety campaign

Policies and Programmes: Government of India, based on the recommendation of the Sundar Committee (2007), has introduced a major Bill in the Parliament to enact the National Road Safety and Traffic Management Act for creating an autonomous/independent Board. This Board will fulfil the following specific requirements, where there is serious void.

• Political commitment at the highest level
• Road safety policy at national level
• Dedicated funds
• Legal framework
• Inter-departmental coordination
• A separate government agency having power and budget to plan and implement road safety programme (successful examples are NHTSA in the US and SNRA in Sweden)
• Domain expertise as part of the Agency.

This Board is expected to address road safety issues and will control and monitor the effective implementation of the provisions of all other Acts relevant to the road safety, and also enable the States to form their independent Road Safety Boards. The Board is expected to be fully equipped with autonomy, funds and expertise, with responsibility as follows:

• Crash investigations: data collection and analysis
• Road engineering and construction
• Vehicle safety design
• Research and institutional linkages
• Road user behaviour: public awareness and education
• Traffic management and enforcement
• Post accident medical care
• Capacity building and training

Comprehensive Approach: A massive Road Safety Campaign with monitoring and evaluation system covering all aspects of safety is needed to create infrastructure that will be forgiving, and to inculcate safe behaviour and safety culture to reduce the risks in road travel. A well designed road safety programme involving all three Es, Engineering, Education and Enforcement, supported by Emergency care system can bring desired change in the safety of Indian roads. A comprehensive framework for such a systematic action plan for a typical highway corridor or as a mission for the country as a whole is required to be taken up as shown in Figure 4, and described in the following sub-sections.

Road Safety Audits: Engineering improvements can be achieved by an independent check on the safety elements by a road safety specialist, by systematically examining the safety aspects of an existing road or a design for a new corridor. As the basic data on accident records are yet to be collected in the country for using in accident investigation with causal analysis and black-spot improvement programmes, preventive measures through recommendations of RSA (Road Safety Audit) appears to be an ideal technology for improving road safety in India. In a notification of MORTH it has been instructed that planning and design as well as construction and implementation stages must adopt RSA strategy in every stage to ensure that safety is taken care of fully, and roads thus implemented do not have any kind of safety deficiency. The concern for road geometry and other engineering measures has developed from the fact that the high speed roads are increasingly becoming the causes of accidents and fatalities in India.

RSA applies to all stages of road development:

(i) Feasibility study
(ii) Preliminary design
(iii) Detailed design
(iv) During construction
(v) After construction (pre-opening)
(vi) Existing roads (monitoring)

The government has also issued instructions that certification on compliance of RSA recommendations will be required for project approvals.

The Government of India has revised its model concession agreement (MCA) to provide more freedom to the concessionaire to adopt innovative design and operation options. With the revision of MCA, the government decided to make it more flexible for the entrepreneur and has chosen Design, Build, Finance, Operate and Transfer (DBFOT) option, where the design responsibility is also given to the concessionaire. However, the government has serious safety concern of all these roads experienced in the past more than one decade. The projects, whether they are in the development stage or in the operation stage after completion of construction, will be reviewed and audited thoroughly at different stages and also at specified intervals during O&M by specially appointed team of safety consultants with a view to enhance the safety performance.

Until a year ago, there were only about a dozen trained and experienced road safety auditors in India, who could be engaged to audit at different stages of road development for ensuring the satisfaction of safety needs at the design and in implementation. In a crude estimation of the volume of audit works, the 70,000 km of National Highways and 50 per cent of the State Highways alone will require about 1,000 man-years of audit time. IRF (India Chapter), jointly with the Ministry and the NHAI, has flagged this issue and collaborated with Australian Road Research Board to develop a five-day course of Road Safety Audit taking guidance from such courses in Europe, UK and in Australia. Six such courses have been delivered till the first quarter of 2011, and about 200 trained auditors are now available in the country. This increased capacity, coupled with the strategy of the Government for safety management for the PPP projects, is expected to have a significant impact on the safety compliances in the road development programme of the country.

Enforcement campaign

The enforcement has its base in the Motor Vehicle Act of 1988 with its amendments. The Act is under revision now, and it is proposed to have more strict laws for serious violations of traffic rules.

Several enforcement campaigns are being pursued with the government as follows:

• Removal of encroachments and vehicles being parked on the road
• Speed limits based on the adjoining land use, strictly enforced through police and modern technologies like speed camera or radar gun, etc, can also be deployed.
• Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) limit enforcement in cities, found to be highly effective
• Helmet and seat belt enforcements for driver and rider which have salutary effect
• Strict enforcement to prevent talking on mobile phone while driving and even while crossing the road as pedestrians.

The enforcement campaign should be done in coordination with a well-designed publicity campaign, as the probability of behavioural change is high when the road users perceive that there is a higher chance of being detected in violation, which will lead to penalty.

Traffic technology developed till date can be also used to upgrade the enforcement systems.


Developing world accounts for the 90 percent of deaths from road crashes, while only 40 per cent of world’s registered motor vehicle fleet is in these countries. Road traffic injuries are among the three leading causes of death for people between five and 44 years of age. The lack of visibility of road traffic injuries and fatalities has a direct impact on political will to recognise this problem, which is like an epidemic. This has resulted in lack of political priority which in turn has led to the lack of resource allocation and a reluctance to take ownership of the issues by relevant Government departments and road authorities. This human tragedy is a particular burden on the poor countries, and this is predominately a killer of the poor in most of the developing countries. It is a comparable public health problem such as malaria and tuberculosis, and would need similar commitment from governments to realise any significant and measurable progress for reducing road traffic deaths and injuries.

A Mission on Road Safety is required to activate all stakeholders in Government and Civil Society so as to address the problem in a systematic way. Actually a multi-prong approach is required to handle this multi-faceted problem of road safety. The UN declaration in March 2010 for reduction of global road fatalities by 50 per cent is a significant step. A decade would provide a timeframe for actions that would encourage political will and resource commitments both globally and nationally.

Abridged and adapted from research paper. Sikdar (left) and Bhavsar are with Intercontinental Consultants & Technocrats, New Delhi.

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