India needs a national safety authority
The article has been authored by Dileep Mavalankar, director, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar.
Recently two very different accidents happened in India which were majorly in news. First Cyrus Mistry’s death in and road accident in Gujarat where two prominent people were killed. The second is recent cable bridge collapse in Morbi where more than 190 people died. Both tragic accidents and very well covered in media. The first one is a common accident in India, the type which kills about 150,000 people every year. But this accident stood out because of the people involved and that fact that they were travelling in the best possible car – Mercedes which is known for safety. Many possible reasons were discussed, and finally the reason seems to be error of judgement and rash driving. On Indian roads, there are many road hazards like animals on the road, parked vehicles, stones, pot holes and other poor-quality road conditions which lead to many accidents.
But four reasons may have been important. First one is over-speeding. It seems that the car was going at very high speed upwards of 100 kmph. And at that speed it is difficult to control the car if any last-minute road hazard is noticed. The second factor seems to be the lack of bold and big warning signs about the narrow road on the bridge ahead where the accident happened. The lack of signs and signs which are too small to notice is India are characteristic of highways and roads.
The third factor in the death of Mistry and his co-passenger is that they were not wearing seat belts in the rear. Many TV channels showed how in accident modelling, the dummy is thrown onto the front wind shield from the back seat if he or she is not wearing seat belt. We as a nation learnt of this when central minister Gopinath Munde died in a similar manner in a Delhi road early in the morning while going to the airport. But we did little to ensure the wearing of seat belts in the rear. It is only now that the Bombay police has started campaign to ensure rear seat belt wearing.
The fourth factor which is not discussed in the media is the expertise of the driver. The car was driven by a friend and not a professional driver. Why would a person like Cyrus Mistry choose not to hire a professional driver for such a long journey on a high way? This is not to say that amateur drivers are not competent but that professional drivers have long experience and so they would be a safer bet on a long drive on a higway. Another reason not to use a friend as driver on a long highway drive is that when the friends get talking in the car, the driver join in the conversation and lose focus. They may then not notice a road hazard early enough to take preventive action. This may have happened in accident which killed Cyrus Mistry. The Mercedes does not have a “cockpit voice recorder” but has some chip which records various parameters like speed and breaking. The report from the Mercedes company recently released of this chip shows that the car was moving at 100 kmph just before the accident which is higher than the permitted speed limit. It seems that the car was also overtaking a heavy vehicle from third lane which is from the left side, again something which is wrong. So, the police have now charged the driver of the car with several counts such as speeding and rash driving and filed charges of culpable homicide against her.
So, the lessons to be learnt are that even the safest car driven at a very high speed is not safe and can kill. Second, on a long journey use a professional driver who is well qualified, skilled and experienced. Do not overtake from the left side. Third, Indian road needs lot more, better, bolder and bigger warning signs for various hazards including road narrowing. Fourth, wearing seat belts in the rear must be compulsory. Every year India loses about 150,000 lives in road accidents. This is really tragic and avoidable.
Now let’s analyse the Morbi suspension bridge collapse accident. The 140-year-old British raj vintage bridge collapsed recently killing around 190 people. This happened after the renovation of the bridge and reopening. The factors for this bridge collapse are several and will come out only after thorough investigation. But prima facie, the main cause of the collapse seems to be overloading – 500 people on the bridge meant for maximum of 100 people. Second, from the videos of the event, just before the collapse, some people seem to be shaking the bridge by jerking its cables and some people seem to be jumping on the footboards creating vibrations. The overloading could have led to the collapse of the main cables of the bridge. Third, and perhaps more vital, seems to be that during repair work, the main cables were not replaced but only painted over even where they were rusted. In short, there were clear engineering failures, administration failures by not restricting entry which lead to overload, and behavioural failures where people tried to shake the bridge. How do we prevent such things happening in future?
After the Bhopal gas leak disaster, we created the National Disaster Management Act and Authority to prevent disasters and to prepare for rescues and relief. That has helped a lot. In major disasters, the loss of life has gone down. Now it is time for India to create a National Safety Authority to lay down standards for safety on roads, and other places. They should also monitor various safety standards compliances and also make a concerted effort to educate people on the behavioural aspects of safety. The objective should be that we reduce road accidents and other accidental deaths by 75% when we celebrate 100 years of Independence.