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Monday, Sep 26, 2022

After Cyrus Mistry’s death, a look at the blind spots on India’s highways

Traffic safety reform also needs to look at trucks taking up the wrong lanes, blind spots in cars and driver fatigue

The biggest bane on multi-lane highways is that the right and middle lanes are monopolised by trucks, something that is not allowed anywhere in the right-hand driving world. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Written by Ajith Das

Road safety is again in the news following the death of former chairperson of Tata Sons, Cyrus Mistry. The usual suspects are speeding, driver fatigue and poor roads. Is that all? The biggest bane on multi-lane highways is that the right and middle lanes are monopolised by trucks, something that is not allowed anywhere in the right-hand driving world. More on that later.

Though vehicles now come with advanced safety-related electronic packages, some of the basic safety procedures mandatory to get a licence abroad are not taught here. One such practice is the “shoulder check”. This is to make sure there is no vehicle in the driver’s “blind spot” during a lane change. A blind spot is the area of the road that can’t be seen by looking through the windscreen, or by using your rear-view and side-view mirrors. A car has two main blind spots, generally on the rear left and right side just outside the rear doors.

Blind spot mirrors, which can be fixed on door mirrors, can substitute shoulder checks. It is time blind spot mirrors are made mandatory for all vehicles and a campaign launched on their use. The campaign can also highlight when to use hazard lights. This can prevent pile-ups on highways where stray cattle and broken-down vehicles are ever-present dangers.

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The most dangerous thing on multi-lane highways are transport vehicles, from trucks and buses to goods autorickshaws on the middle and right lanes. Worldwide, commercial vehicles are confined to the left lane, and the middle lane is used by them only for overtaking slow-moving vehicles.

The middle lanes are used by faster passenger vehicles and the right lane, generally called the speed lane, is used for overtaking or high-speed driving for passenger vehicles. Slow vehicles must move into the middle lane to make way for faster vehicles.

While recently driving from Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu to Coimbatore, I witnessed a bizarre sight – in each of the three lanes, were three trucks. A convoy of assorted vehicles was following the trucks at 60kmph as none of the trucks was giving way.

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Since Indians mostly overtake from the right, a slow truck on the right lane is a real danger, as I found out on a drive to Mysore. I was going up a clear, curvy flyover in the speed lane. When I reached the top, I saw a gargantuan cement mixer truck in the speed lane trundling downhill. I calculated it was going at about 100 kmph.

There was an Ertiga in the middle lane. Thinking I had a sufficient margin to overtake the Ertiga and move into its lane, I sped down the right lane. Big mistake, I realised too late. I forgot one important lesson I learnt while driving in India… many male drivers hate being overtaken and the moment someone tries to do it, they will step on the gas. That’s exactly what happened. The distance between the truck and my car was getting smaller. The Ertiga was not slowing down. I didn’t want to brake as I feared that if the car skidded to the right and hit the wall, I could fly off the flyover. I was able to overtake the Ertiga and move into the middle lane inches away from the truck in the nick of time. A narrow escape.

Imagine driving into a curve at a high speed, only to see slow-moving trucks in the middle and right lane. Car drivers are then railroaded into the left lane. Drivers forced to make such sudden lane changes at high speed sometimes make errors in judgement, including forgetting to conduct blind spot checks. This could prove to be fatal.

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Furthermore, since the driver is sitting on the right side, he hardly gets a clear view of the lane till he is in it. Left lanes often harbour unseen obstructions, such as pavement stones, badly built or poorly visible dividers/separators or broken down/parked vehicles, which only truck drivers can see from a distance because of their higher seating position.

While the government talks about improving highway design and making seatbelts mandatory for rear-seat passengers, finding a way to keep trucks and slow-moving vehicles in the left lane would make roads much safer. The government recently announced a computerised system for collecting toll through number plate identification. A similar system can be introduced for keeping track of transport vehicles driving on the middle and speed lanes. Road users can be encouraged to send photos of erring trucks to state-specific RTO portals to penalise the drivers.

A study conducted in Oman a few years ago had found that tubular barriers on the sides and rear of trucks reduced the severity of damage/impact in accidents involving smaller vehicles. This is worth trying out as many Indians drive just a few inches away from the rear of trucks. It is pertinent to point out here that abroad, drivers who rear-end other vehicles are penalised heavily for not keeping an adequate distance from vehicles in the front. This will go a long way in reining in tailgating.

Also, many lives could be saved if trucks’ parking lights are connected to the vehicles’ clocks, so that they will stay switched on from evening to morning, irrespective of the vehicle being idle or not. Many of our road deaths are from smaller vehicles rear-ending trucks parked in the darkness.

Another issue is driver fatigue. Most people don’t know that car air-conditioning is a major contributor. For instance, air is recycled in a car with the windows closed, resulting in oxygen getting depleted and replaced by carbon dioxide. Higher carbon dioxide levels may lead to drowsiness, causing fatigue. What is the panacea? After every hour of driving, roll down the windows for a few minutes. Vehicle makers can put up stickers inside cars to highlight the issue.

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While the government mulls increasing speed limits to 140kmph, there are serious issues that need to be addressed so that lots of lives can be saved.

The writer is the former editor of Oman Tribune

First published on: 21-09-2022 at 08:11:10 pm
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