Policies that change how people drive will have the greatest impact on road safety.
This is an unedited version of The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
Ammu Joseph remembers Navroze Contractor.
The 80-year old fellow Bangalorean was a highly regarded film-maker, photographer, music maven, motorcycle enthusiast and a champion of road safety. He was killed when three drunken motorcyclists riding at high speed on the wrong side of the road crashed into him. The staggering irony compounds the tragedy of lives lost as a result of wrongdoings that are, paradoxically, both avoidable and normalised. Erosion of norms is the fastest way to anarchy. Road safety will get worse unless they are addressed now.
The government publishes annual reports on Accidents in India.
It is not all bad news. According to the Union ministry of road transport and highways (MORTH) latest report on road accidents in India there over over 400,000 road accidents in 2021 accounting for over 153,000 fatalities, making India the country with the highest number of road fatalities in the world. But there has been a consistent downward trend both in the number of accidents and fatalities when normalised for vehicle population: from 3.5 accidents and 1 death per 1000 vehicles in 2011, to 1.1 accidents and 0.4 deaths in 2020. This improvement has occurred even as the number of vehicles has tripled and the road length increased by 40%. These figures almost certainly understate the actual numbers — for people do not report minor accidents — but official data is most reliable when it counts fatalities. The positive long-term trend is therefore a good sign.
There are two problems though. First, there is a post-Covid surge in accidents (12.6%), deaths (17%) and injuries (10.4%) in the year after the lockdown restrictions ended. Accident rates quickly returned to pre-Covid levels. According reports released by Bengaluru police, reckless driving case bookings increased 66% and wrong side driving 36% in 2022 compared to the previous year. There is reason to suspect that the post-Covid deterioration is not merely a return to the norm, but a different and worse trajectory.
This brings us to the second problem: we have new infrastructure but old behaviour. It is one thing to drive on the wrong side of an old, potholed road where vehicles manage 50 kmph, and entirely another to do it on the new national highways that easily allow double the speed. There have been 570 accidents and 55 deaths in the five months since the new Bengaluru-Mysuru expressway opened for traffic. Part of this is due to design faults, but as officials claim, mostly due to reckless driving. As the MORTH report shows, most accidents occurred due to speeding, in open mainly rural areas, along straight stretches in good weather conditions. People are reckless in adverse traffic conditions, but throw caution to the winds when the coast is clear. An expressway is a very different type of road compared to what existed before it, but — this is the crucial part — nobody explained the difference to motorists and the people living alongside it. Without public awareness campaigns and driver training, why would people behave in ways appropriate to the new infrastructure?
While the Union government is adopting a multi-pronged strategy of education, engineering, enforcement and emergency care, it has limited influence in fixing the weakest link: qualifying drivers. States issue driving licenses and the cavalier manner in which they do so is an open secret. A friend’s daughter was appalled when she found that the driving school instructor not only took the computerised learner’s license test on her behalf, but got 40% of the multiple choice questions wrong. The next two weeks consisted of her learning how to get the vehicle moving, followed by a driving test that tested just that. Neither the test, nor the instructor had anything to say about driving safely and following traffic rules. How can we expect drivers to know about lane discipline, road signs, speed limits and suchlike? MORTH plans to set up model institutes of driving training, but the effort has to expand massively, engage state governments in a genuine partnership, and ensure that every new driver is really trained.
Meanwhile there are immediate steps that MORTH can undertake on its own. It is possible to improve safety on national highways through an awareness and training campaign for motorists, especially frequent users such as bus, truck and commercial vehicle drivers. Those who acquire ‘safe highway driver cards’ could be offered incentives such as priority lanes at toll gates and food vouchers at rest areas. The government’s own data shows that getting drivers to respect speed limits and maintain lane discipline will register the biggest improvement in road safety. So that’s the bull that must be tackled by the horns.
An audible beep is irritating and that’s perhaps why it works. It’s certainly better than a huge axle-breaking speed breaker.
In an earlier column on what I call the ‘Gadkari Nudge’ — the beep that sounds at 80kmph — I showed that we need to pay attention to a triangle: behaviour, design and organisation. Behaviour is the most flexible of the three and can compensate for deficiencies in design and enforcement. A small improvement in behaviour by large number of people can cascade into dramatic improvements. Had that motorcyclist on Hosur Road not been drunk, not been speeding or not been on the wrong side of the road, both he and Navroze Contractor would have been alive today. The challenge of improving road safety in India might appear hopelessly gigantic, until you realise that small improvements can make big differences.
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