What Makes India’s Roads the Deadliest in the World
Poor conditions, lax enforcement, unsafe vehicles and stray animals lead to more than 900,000 deaths and injuries a year. The government aims to cut road fatalities 50% by 2025.
(Bloomberg) -- Two-wheeler rider killed in accident in Karnataka. Four injured as Delhi cop’s car rams into six vehicles. Two killed after car crashes into tree in Kapurthala. Speeding car runs into group of women in Bihar’s Gopalganj, two dead.
Road crashes are an epidemic in India. They kill and disable over 900,000 people every year, more than anywhere in the world, costing India $156 billion, according to the World Bank. The death of former Tata Sons Chairman Cyrus Mistry from a collision in September 2022 and a separate incident that injured cricketer Rishabh Pant in December further highlighted the scourge of dangerous roads and how little has been done to fix them.
“We don’t give value to safety,” said Prerana Arora Singh, chief executive and managing trustee of People’s Trust, Jaipur, a nonprofit that advocates for road safety education, training and post-crash care. “We rather give value to reaching our destination as quickly as possible and prioritize high-speed vehicles, like cars, buses, trucks, and ignore the safety of pedestrians and two-wheeler riders.”
In January, India’s Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari called for a 50% reduction in crash fatalities by 2025. But achieving such a dramatic drop would be a tall order, as the roots of India’s road fatalities run deep, from badly engineered infrastructure and a culture of rule-bending to a lack of driver education and an abundance of free-roaming cattle. Here are some of the key reasons why India accounts for one in every 10 traffic fatalities worldwide — and the steps that local and national officials are taking to stop the killing.
Safety audits of road designs before starting construction are “grossly overlooked” in India, said S. Velmurugan, chief scientist of traffic engineering and safety at the Delhi-based Central Road Research Institute, which studies transportation planning. Developers rely on software for designing the streets without checking whether they meet the needs of all road users and ensuring there are no flaws on the ground. It’s possible to reduce fatalities by at least 25% if authorities do the design audit, Velmurugan said.
Riders of two-wheelers like motorcycles, scooters and mopeds — which make up 75% of the vehicles in India — die the most in road accidents. Easy to steer through traffic, affordable motorbikes are preferred by lower-income families and younger people buying their first vehicle. They are also popular with delivery fleets. And they’re seen as safer in some ways than overcrowded trains or buses. (In a 2021 survey of women across 140 Indian cities, more than half of respondents reported being sexually harassed while using public transit.) Limited availability of sidewalks and crosswalks make pedestrians especially vulnerable as well.
To curb road accidents, the government is identifying and fixing black spots on national highways considering road engineering issues are a major cause for causalities.
As the expression goes, if you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere in the world. That’s because many people brave bumpy roads, jaywalkers, heavy traffic and stray animals, often without the protection of helmets and seatbelts. Skipping traffic signals, three or more riders on a motorcycle and drunk driving are common. In fact, speeding and driving on the wrong side of the road are the top causes for vehicle deaths.
Some of India’s traffic rules are stricter than other nations — for example, the use of mobile phones while driving is banned in India but China, the US and the UK allow it as long as the person is not holding the device. India even has a lower blood alcohol limit at 0.03%, versus 0.08% for the US and the UK.
But India’s enforcement of speed, drunk driving and seatbelt laws scores lower than China and the UK, the World Health Organization found. While the central government proposed a new motor vehicles act in 2019 with stricter safety regulations to deter offenders, many states resisted implementing it and lowered the hefty penalties for violators.
Corruption is another factor undermining law enforcement in the country, according to Velmurugan at the Central Road Research Institute. The process of getting a driver’s license, for example, often involves bribes and it’s evident from how ubiquitous underage drivers are.
As India's police force is understaffed, enforcement should be enhanced through technology, said Singh from the People’s Trust, Jaipur. There should be a bigger focus on traffic calming, with lower speed limits in school zones and where people live, she said.
It's also important to strengthen laws on seat belts, child restraints, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and helmets for both riders and passengers on two-wheelers, according to Singh. India needs to equip first responders to treat crash victims quickly and guarantee the rights of bystanders who provide assistance, she said.
Some local efforts are underway. In the northern state of Rajasthan and the eastern state of Jharkhand, officials have dedicated funds for road safety and improved enforcement of rules around speed, helmets and seatbelts. They have also promoted a Good Samaritan law by giving cash rewards to those who voluntarily come forward to administer immediate assistance or emergency care to a person injured in a crash.
Police in India don’t have specialized traffic departments. Local officers get basic training on crash and safety, with a bigger focus on traffic management instead of law enforcement. Singh recommends India prioritize recruiting a separate skilled traffic force and increase the capacity for better traffic management, crash investigation and law implementation on ground, she said. A lack of dedicated traffic and road safety curriculum at universities also creates a dearth of instructors who can train the police and impart safe driving skills to people looking to get license.
India’s vehicle safety standards are far less rigorous than those in the US or the European Union. The biggest Indian carmaker’s top-selling hatchback, the Maruti Suzuki Swift, received a one-star rating out of five in independent crash tests carried out by Global New Car Assessment Programme. Efforts to bring about higher standards has been mixed. In September, India postponed a rule to install at least six airbags in cars.
The government has introduced its own new safety rating standard, called the Bharat New Car Assessment Program, to indicate the level of protection cars offer to consumers. It has also proposed adding side torso and curtain airbags in cars starting Oct. 1, 2023, and requires all front-facing seats manufactured after April 1 of this year have three-point seat belts. But given the number of cars on the road, it will take time before such changes make any impact.
For safer vehicles, India needs to do the crash tests in line with the United Nations regulations, and the Global New Car Assessment Programme's standards should become mandatory for all types of vehicles, Singh said. To meet UN regulations on front and side impact, automakers should include stability controls that prevent over-steering, while ensuring airbags and seatbelts are fitted in all vehicles. Without these basic standards, the risk of traffic injuries is “considerably increased,” according to the World Health Organization.
On top of India’s more common problems with road design and traffic, stray animals can add to the menace. There were 5 million stray cattle and 15 million stray dogs in India as of 2019, and drivers have to be mindful, especially in less developed cities than New Delhi or Mumbai. To mitigate this, Singh recommends the government provide safe shelters for stray animals, which should be maintained by local administration with the support of community groups.
“Stray animals on roads is a serious administration issue that needs to be tackled with a sustainable plan,” Singh said.
(Updates with government moves on black spots. An earlier version corrected a name spelling in the second paragraph.)
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