When it comes to safety on road, efforts must go beyond lip service

Feb 13, 2019 02:55 PM IST

Fixing age-old road safety laws, designing safer infrastructure and sticking to speed limits are some of the steps needed to bring down the spiralling number of road fatalities every year.

Last Sunday, another Road Safety Week was observed. Once again, the talk around road safety was everywhere — be it in the media, schools or even police stations. There were banners, social media posts, campaigns, quiz competitions, walks, talks and what not. However, by Monday, things were back to where they were a couple of Sundays ago. So, what changed after the Road Safety Week? Well, virtually nothing! In fact, this was the 30th Road Safety Week in the country. So, the same question can also be put across in a different way: What changed in last 30 years? Sadly, the only thing that changed in these years is the fact that road traffic deaths in India have tripled from around 36,000 per year to 150,000 per year.

In the last 30 years, road traffic deaths in India have tripled from around 36,000 per year to 150,000 per year.(HT File / Photo used for representational purpose)
In the last 30 years, road traffic deaths in India have tripled from around 36,000 per year to 150,000 per year.(HT File / Photo used for representational purpose)

So, why have things gone from bad to worse when it comes to road safety in India? Well that’s because we have totally forgotten that there is a science behind road safety. When it comes to road safety, unfortunately, most of the efforts from both the government and the private sector were limited to road safety education. We try to educate the road user to follow traffic rules, not drink and drive, reduce speed, etc.However in the end, we see all road traffic-related deaths have quadrupled in the last three decades. Therefore, the question is: Are we addressing the issue of road safety in the right manner? Clearly not. So, here are the three corrective actions that need to be executed now.

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Putting people over politics: Correcting the legislation

Globally, countries that have done well on road safety have always had an effective legislation. The Motor Vehicles Act (MVA) 1988, the central piece of legislation is modelled on the Motor Vehicle Act, 1939. MVA came into existence at a time, when the motorisation scenario in India was at a nascent stage. Policies were needed to give a boost to the transportation sector. Hence, most of the provisions of the 1988 bill revolved around the movement of goods and passengers, while safety was mostly missing. Since then, it has been constantly felt that the act needs urgent amendment. The Centre came up with amendments to the MV Act that were passed by the Lok Sabha in April 2017. The bill has been stuck in Rajya Sabha since 2017, and has never been discussed. While politics may have taken over the functioning of Parliament, but we need to understand that it’s the people who are losing lives on the roads.

Safer by design: Making road infrastructure safe

One of the biggest missing pieces of road safety in India is understanding the impact of infrastructure. Globally, research has shown that creating safe infrastructure can help avoiding crashes or reduce their severity. The first and probably the only thing about which our infrastructure planners and designers think is how to move maximum number vehicles with the least amount of space and time consumed on the road. This needs to change, we need to put safety first while designing road projects. Therefore, any project that compromises safety but may help move few more cars, should not be approved. As per census 2011, 36% Indians walk or cycle to work, followed by 13% who use two wheelers, while using cars to travel to work accounts for only 3%. Therefore, road infrastructure design should accommodate all users and not only those in cars.

Safer speed: Zero tolerance to over speeding

Most of us are familiar with the slogan, ‘Speed Thrills but Also Kills’, right? Well, it is a reality because a number of studies from around the world have shown that speed is the biggest killer. But somehow, we continue to have this fascination for moving at a high speed. The other big problem with speed is the fact that it not only impacts the person who is driving but more importantly other users on road, especially pedestrians, cyclists, two wheelers, etc. For example, if a pedestrian is hit by a car at 30 kmph, the chance of survival is 90%. However, if the same collision happens at 50 kmph, which is the legal speed limit in our cities, the chance is only 15%. Now, imagine what happens beyond 50 kmph? Instant death. One way to control speed is to design roads for safe speed and not as a Formula One track. The second would be to enforce speed limits vigorously on the road through heavy fines,
de-licencing, etc.

Countries like Sweden have shown that it is possible to reduce road traffic-related deaths even when the overall transportation demand is growing. However, they have done this by following a safe systems approach. We need to learn from such examples. Road safety is beyond just education and surely takes more than a week-long campaign every year. We need to work towards it in a holistic manner and throughout the year. Else, next year we will have another Road Safety Week, but with fatalities crossing 150,000 in number.

(Amit Bhatt is the director- integrated transport, WRI India)

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