April 18, 2017 12:37:57 am
It is always unsettling to hear Dinesh Mohan — now retired but guest faculty at IIT-Delhi, where he has, for decades, been analysing road safety issues. One came away from his recent presentation in Mumbai feeling wary about being at the wheel of a car — or, for that matter, even seated at the back, particularly on a highway. The event, organised by the environmental NGO Parisar from Pune, laid out the basic facts about the terrible toll on human lives on Indian roads. In 2015, there were just over 4,50,000 accidents in the country, of which nearly 1,50,000 were fatal, amounting to 410 deaths and some 1,300 injuries every day.
National highways and state expressways accounted for two-thirds of these deaths. It would be prudent to estimate that with the slew of new highways like the Golden Quadrilateral, and a highway proposed between Nagpur and Mumbai, this toll will only increase. However, there is no reliable data on accidents, Mohan observes. He contrasts this with the US, UK, Netherlands and Japan, where the accident rate was increasing till 1970, when a number of measures made roads safer. The improved design and technology of cars also led to a fall in accidents. But in many Indian cities, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the accident rate has gone up two to five times in the last five years — this must be due to the burgeoning “automobilisation” of our society.
Mohan is fond of challenging the “mythology” that penal measures by themselves lead to better safety. He believes there was a paradigm shift abroad: Instead of forcing people to adapt to traffic situations, countries worked on eliminating risk factors from traffic. In other words, instead of blaming bad drivers, the authorities treated people as “normal” and worked on reforming the system.
Another myth is that as countries get richer, the number of accidents decline. Countries like Iran, Kuwait and Thailand have high death rates per one lakh people. What is more, education by itself may not improve matters. Research has shown that driving instruction in school — children can drive in the US once they are 16 — can enable many to get their licences earlier and actually increase the number of crashes. “Culture” doesn’t count either: An urbanised and literate state like Tamil Nadu topped the fatality rate among states in 2014, followed by Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
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The alternative approach, such as that adopted in Sweden, is to shift the onus for accidents from drivers to the road transport system. The system must be so designed that it accommodates the individual who has the worst protection and lowest tolerance to road violence. This would obviously include the young, elderly and physically challenged. The much-vaunted “greening” of highways in India, without proper safeguards, is actually hazardous because a speeding car can veer off and hit a tree, proving fatal.
Roundabouts at important intersections can greatly reduce accidents, as much of Lutyens’ Delhi should know. It is a no-brainer that a reduction in traffic speed reduces accidents, so devices such as speed-breakers are essential. The American Journal of Public Health points out that speed “humps” reduce the dangers to children by a half to two-thirds. A 1 per cent increase in speed leads to a 3 per cent increase in deaths, which is why New York City has reduced the maximum speed from 50 to 40 kmph. Mohan makes a strong case for fixing a speed limit of 50 kmph on urban arterial roads in the country, while the “iconic” Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai, for example, permits 80 kmph. Four-lane highways are very accident-prone, which is why all traffic “calming” measures are required.
Simple improvements, like bright lights at junctions, speed cameras, a police presence and making helmets compulsory can work wonders. Seat belts worn even at the rear, which is seldom done here, can lower the risk of death to occupants by upto three-quarters. Many people who die on the roads aren’t drivers or passengers, but pedestrians, who aren’t using motorised transport to begin with but have an equal, if not greater, right to the roads. In the years studied by Mohan, they accounted for 47 per cent of accident deaths in Delhi and 79 per cent in Mumbai, motorised two-wheelers accounted for 26 and 7 per cent of such deaths in Delhi and Mumbai, and car crashes only accounted for 3 and 2 per cent of the accident death in the two cities.
Mohan believes that the bill to amend the Motor Vehicles Act — passed by the Lok Sabha last week — by increasing fines five-fold and even more, misses the point because drivers aren’t necessarily deterred by such fines. Instead, frequent, visible and unpredictable checks — not by electronic means — will help more. Further, there are no permanent safety experts in central agencies like the National Highways Authority of India and in states. However, given that drivers of vehicles on highways earn around Rs 15,000 a month, fines and other measures may indeed act as a caution. There is also no doubt that provisions like standardising driving licences and regulating the certification of vehicles throughout the country can help curb the virtual epidemic of fatal accidents.
The writer is chairman emeritus, Forum of Environmental Journalists in India
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