It’s time to put an end to India’s road safety crisis
Rising access to personal mobility has not resulted in a stronger awareness for road safety. In fact, traffic-related fatalities have only increased year on year.
After his impressive speech at Red Fort last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made another statement to discerning observers, one without a single word spoken. The PM, who rides in a vehicle custom-designed for security, on roads cleared for his motorcade, still took out three seconds from his busy schedule to fasten his seat belt. His gesture was brought to the nation’s light by a Union minister and then swiftly broadcast in the media; one could posit that it was a well-timed act of strategic message placement for road safety. Yet, hours later, Delhi customary traffic revealed to me people of all ages flouting seat belt rules, in both the front and rear seats.
Road safety today must enjoy the highest importance for every Indian citizen. Its importance is linked not only to its societal impact but also to the scale of India’s auto demand and rising ownership. Over 30 years ago, the Indian car market began to show the first signs of its future potential, growing at a faster rate than that in many developed economies. In the next three years, as per a McKinsey report, India is set to emerge as the world’s third-largest passenger vehicle market. By 2040, the number of vehicles per 1000 inhabitants is anticipated to increase almost nine times.
Yet, one only needs to look at the road fatality numbers to realise that rising access to personal mobility has not resulted in a stronger awareness of road safety. In fact, traffic-related fatalities have only increased year on year. The worst possible outcome — incidents of traffic mortality — is emerging out of India’s car boom. Without a culture of rigorous compliance to safety protocol, the road safety crisis will continue to fester. Road safety is, therefore, a vital intervention across the mobility ecosystem for measurable outcomes.
The Indian car sector has served as a conscientious stakeholder. With industry-wide awareness campaigns across states, it has demonstrated acute cognizance of its role. Simultaneously, the rise of Internet of Things-enabled, connected cars in India, which international auto majors are heavily investing in currently, can give a digital edge to road safety. With an array of embedded sensors informing drivers of other on-road cars, onboard analytics can give them real-time driving suggestions to avoid collisions.
Playing its role with diligence, the government is making a blueprint for a stronger policy framework that considers heftier penalties for dangerous driving and a body solely dedicated to road safety that will demand compliance with mobility regulations. The unprecedented pace of construction and infrastructure improvement is one more link in the journey to safer roads.
The majority of road accidents are the fault of irresponsible drivers. That should present a direction for intervention. The simplest measure — wearing seat belts — is often the most ignored. Only 25% of drivers fasten their seat belts, even though it is mandated by the Motor Vehicles Act. This last mile of road safety, therefore, depends on drivers. Their negligence in buckling up will be the hardest to change due to an entrenched culture of driving without a seat belt.
Across India, many reports have identified the seat belt to be the single most effective way of preventing bodily injury in the wake of a traffic accident. According to a United Nations study, India loses 3% of its GDP, or approximately $8 billion, to road accidents by removing prime age adults from the workforce. Accidents also take away many of the next-generation workforce — today’s children — at the rate of 43 a day.
What the numbers don’t reveal is the ripple effect of seat belt negligence, its social and economic repercussions. Entire families can find themselves disrupted with the death of one breadwinner, or the loss of a son or daughter. This damage is compounded when we consider that every single passenger in a car may ignore the seat belt. Ignored often by the front seat co-passenger and driver, seat belts are almost never considered in the rear seat. Consequently, a collision or an accident jeopardises the life of every passenger.
As vested stakeholders in partnership with government and the public work towards road safety awareness, we feel a new culture of comprehensive seat belt compliance must become the new focus area. Drivers are responsible not only for their own safety, but also for the safety of co-passengers. We, as citizens, would do well to create a better example for the next generation.
Thomas Kuehl is president, Nissan India Operations
The views expressed are personal