Whether it is the increasing duration of our daily commutes or the regular reports of road rage disasters, it is clear that something has gone disastrously wrong on our roads. Road traffic fatalities have gone up to 100,000 a year, up from 15,000 in 1971. And with rapidly increasing motorization, the situation looks likely to get much worse.
Can good public transport help?
Overcrowded, undependable, and dangerous as it is, demand for public transport shows no sign of abating and continuing urbanization will likely keep pushing it up. As many as 80, 60 and 42 per cent of all trips in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi are being carried out in some form of public transport.
Buses alone are carrying over 90 per cent of public transport in Indian cities. As Sanjay K. Singh of IIT Kanpur has shown, buses also occupy less road space and cause less pollution per passenger-km than personalized vehicles. Yet this sector has been widely neglected, with private transportation providing a questionable substitute. Consider that with only one per cent of the global car population, India already has 10 per cent of the world’s car accidents.
In the run-up to the next Olympics, Beijing’s efforts to fix the chronic pollution and congestion dogging its streets are centered on a rapid improvement in public transport. The goal is to increase the population using public transport from 24 per cent in 2004 (behind the 31 per cent relying on private cars and taxies) to 60 per cent by 2008. A huge subsidy has also been earmarked to reduce bus fares to only one yuan per ride, with provision for an electronic debit card with which passengers would pay even less—only 40 cents.
Until India also makes comprehensive investments, the World Bank says it is looking at economic losses from congestion and poor roads estimated at up to 300 billion rupees a year.
Passing the buck
We seem to have failed to develop a road safety culture in this country. Result: a rapid increase in traffic violations, with an annual increase of 36.2 million daily violations being committed by motorized vehicles in NCT Delhi alone. The government states that 83.5 per cent of the crashes countrywide are caused by the fault of drivers, who overspeed, overload, drive under the influence of alcohol and generally indulge in hazardous behaviors.
On the other hand, the Institute of Road Traffic Education’s president Rohit Baluja argues that many of these are actually caused by faulty traffic engineering systems. But in the absence of a scientific accident investigation system in place, police departments often put the blame on the driver automatically. Whether it is the construction debris inundating our growing cities or the trees obstructing our bus lanes, such factors are rarely accounted for in official statistics.
The 2007 report of the Sundar Committee also shows that diffusion of responsibility is deeply institutional, makeing it difficult to either improve the traffic situation or to pin down accountability to accident victims. The committee suggests that the transport department that looks after driver and vehicle regulation and licensing should also be responsible for the overall coordination of road safety management. It also emphasizes the need for uniform standards for crash reporting and investigation, road design and maintenance, traffic control and surveillance systems, and emergency services.
Amended with inputs from the Sundar Committee, the draft National Road Safety Policy provides a ray of hope in a chaotic policy environment. It adopts the holistic approach of taking both human and infrastructural factors into account, emphasizes the need for clearly identifying the responsibilities of different stakeholders, and suggests steps for a stringent enforcement of traffic laws.