Binoy Mascarenhas May 7th, 2015
India has one of the the worst road-safety records in the world. Over the last decade, over a million people, mostly in the age group of 15 to 45 years, have lost their lives on our roads. Recognising road mishaps as one of the fastest-growing global epidemics, the United Nations declared 2011-2020 as the UN Decade of Action for road safety. In the five years since then, the number of road-accident deaths in India have increased from about 130,000 in 2010, to almost 150,000 today.
This is not to say that we haven’t made efforts to address the problem. Since 2010, a plethora of strategies have been adopted by various government agencies. Much of the focus has been on addressing road-user behaviour, be it of drivers, motorcyclists or pedestrians. This is understandable, given the notorious traffic discipline in our country. There have been some successes in this regard, notable being the efforts undertaken by the Mumbai Police to curb drunk driving. Spurred by a couple of high-profile cases, the Mumbai police adopted a series of stringent measures to eradicate this menace. By some measure, this has had an impact: the average Mumbaikar is quite wary of getting behind the wheel after a night out at the pub.
However, initiatives like these will have only limited success if they are not united under a comprehensive policy that takes a holistic approach to the problem. Measures to address driver behaviour must also be tied in with parallel initiatives to improve road infrastructure, regulate vehicle specifications, and address the larger mobility patterns in the city. Unfortunately, much of our understanding of the road safety problem is still very driver-centric. We start with the default position that when an accident takes place, it is the driver (most often of the larger vehicle) that is at fault. It is common to read news reports of an accident, stating that the driver was immediately arrested, with the report concluding that the driver was driving recklessly. Often, no evidence is provided to corroborate this claim. An analysis of road accident records of the Mumbai Police in 2013 showed that in 99% of all fatal accidents, the police concluded that the sole factor that caused the accident was driver error. In not a single case have the police attributed even a contributing mention to road infrastructure or vehicle specifications.
In India, much of our road infrastructure is completely devoid of even the most basic safety standards, which is further aggravated by extremely hazardous road conditions, such as potholes, loose debris and missing footpaths. Unfortunately, new roads that are being developed within our cities follow archaic highway standards that are completely out of context for a modern city. By adopting an automobile-centric design approach, these developments completely ignore the fact that over 50% of all road fatalities in our cities are of pedestrians.
There are many lessons to be learned from Sweden’s Vision Zero approach to road safety. Since adopting this policy in 1997, Sweden has managed to reduce the number of road accident deaths in the country by half. For any new road or road improvement project, Sweden places paramount importance on safety, followed by any other parameter of speed, carrying capacity or cost. Vision Zero places special focus on the safety of vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, and adheres to the basic principle that if roads are designed to be safe for the most vulnerable user, then they will be safe for all.
Within cities, it is absolutely essential that our strategies place prime importance on the mobility and safety of the vulnerable road user groups, that is pedestrians, motorcyclists and non-motorised transport users. In most major cities in India, these groups make up more than 75% of all road fatalities, pedestrians generally accounting for more than half that number.
Unfortunately, our city governments are responding to these alarming statistics in a very inequitable manner. In Mumbai, motorcyclists are banned from using many newly constructed roads, such as the Eastern Freeway, JJ Flyover and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. In Kolkata, bicyclists were recently disallowed on many important roads. In Delhi, guardrails are erected along major roads to prevent pedestrians from crossing them. All these policies have been purportedly undertaken to ensure the safety of these road users.
But these measures fail to acknowledge the fact that the these road users groups together constitute more than 75% of the mode share in our cities, to whom we are denying basic access, without providing viable alternatives. Thus, such measures actually end up punishing the victim. It is both inequitable and unconstitutional for infrastructure to be built using public expenditure that neglects the needs and safety of the modes of transport that are used by the overwhelming majority, and are, in most cases, the only modes available to the large sections of poorer society.