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The Road to Safety in India

This post originally appeared in The Indian Express on February, 18 2015.


As Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, announces a package of assistance on road safety through Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Global Safety Initiative, here is an ugly truth: India has one of the worst road safety records in the world, with around 1,37,423 road traffic fatalities in 2013. This makes up about 10 per cent of road crash fatalities worldwide. In absolute numbers, more people die in road crashes in India than anywhere else in the world.

This makes up about 10 percent of road crash fatalities worldwide. In absolute numbers, more people die in road crashes in India than anywhere else in the world.

It is estimated that 17-18 percent of these fatalities occur in urban areas. This poses a serious threat as the country is rapidly urbanising. A recent evaluation of road traffic fatalities in Delhi shows that pedestrians and bicyclists accounted for 63 percent of total fatalities, against 11.4 percent for the country as a whole.

Million-plus cities as well as small and medium towns have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of fatalities per million population. They also record more road traffic accidents in the evening, which could be attributed to higher speeds, drunk driving and poor visibility. Allahabad recorded the greatest increase in fatalities per million people—405 percent from 2001 to 2009—followed by Agra (319 percent).

Things will probably get worse before they get better. Traffic fatalities increased by about 5 percent per year from 1980 to 2000, and since then have increased by about 8 percent per year.

Domestic vehicle sales increased from 97 lakh in 2008 to almost 2 crore in 2014. There is a strong correlation between the increase in vehicles and increase in road fatalities. Some estimates suggest traffic fatalities will grow five-fold in India by 2050 if we do not take adequate action.

Global experience shows that building safer motor vehicles and re-engineered road geometry does not translate into a better road safety record. There are success stories, like Sweden, where a “vision zero” approach to road safety was able to bring down fatalities to five or six annually. The U.S., on the other hand, managed to bring down the risk of road fatalities per kilometre travelled. However, the total kilometres travelled has grown exponentially in the past decades, hence total road traffic fatalities continue to be high.

Rather than focusing on improving the safety of fast-moving vehicles, the international road safety discourse now focuses on two objectives: reducing the average speed of vehicles and, importantly, reducing the total volume of vehicle kilometres travelled. Together, this is known as a “sustainable transport approach” to road safety. It includes the redesign of urban streets and transport systems so that greater emphasis is put on public transport, non-motorised transport and transit-oriented development. The sustainable transport approach can also be categorised by the Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) framework, where the objective is: avoid growth in vehicle kilometres travelled; shift trips to safer and more sustainable modes, like public transport and non-motorised transport, and improve the general condition of transport in terms of safety, time, cost, comfort.

This means India needs a two-pronged approach to road safety, with an equal emphasis on reducing the risk of fatality per kilometre travelled and reducing the number of vehicle kilometres travelled.

There is a critical list of best practices under each approach. Reducing the risk of fatality means strict enforcement of traffic rules—drunk driving, helmet use, seat belts and child restraint, as well as air bags. It means improving the behaviour of all road users: lane driving, keeping to speed limits, using and respecting pedestrian crossings etc. It also means improving road geometry—identifying accident-prone spots and re-engineering them. And finally, it means ensuring that the vehicles manufactured are safer. Governments and planners should require many of these standards by law, and by building a strong system for its enforcement.

Reducing the number of vehicle kilometres travelled means increasing safe access to presently vulnerable road users—bicyclists and pedestrians. Planners should make access to urban streets safer through better design and adequate space for pedestrians and other non-motorised transport users. It also means encouraging alternate, preferably non-motorised, forms of transport, such as cycle rickshaws, for shorter or local commutes. The use of mass-transit systems such as buses and trains to assist long-distance commutes is strongly recommended.

Planners should rationalise new road infrastructure investments by asking if it is a priority if only a small percentage of commuters own or drive cars. In Mumbai, for instance, just 14 percent use private cars or two-wheelers, whereas the majority spend a large part of their commute as pedestrians or users of public transport. As is often repeated within the transport sector, a rich nation is not one in which the poor have cars but one in which the rich use public transport.

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