Road Safety is Jumping too Many Red Lights

June 23, 2014

Onno Ruhl, World Bank India Country Director and Arnab Bandyopadhyay, Senior Transport Engineer, World Bank India Hindustan Times

On June 3 India lost Union minister Gopinath Munde to a road accident. His death added to the alarming list of fatalities that make India’s roads among the most dangerous in the world. Ask the 1.1 million families who lost their loved ones in similarly preventable accidents over the past 10 years. Or the 5.3 million who lie disabled and disfigured for life.

Put simply, 10% of the world’s road deaths take place on India’s killer roads — which account for less than 3% of the world’s vehicles. That too when many such incidents are not documented at all. What is more worrying is the sharp rise in road fatalities over the past decade.

Many developed and even developing countries have scored big wins by making their roads safer. In the 1970s, Australia recorded 30 road deaths for every 10,000 people — much higher than the 12 documented in India. By 1990, they had brought this down to 14, and two decades later had reduced it to six, in spite of rapid motorisation. Vision, goal-setting, and political will lay at the heart of Australia’s success.

Argentina used effective inter-agency coordination to improve road safety. In India, the responsibility for road safety is dispersed among a range of authorities — from transport and public works to police, home, and health, to name a few — resulting in a piecemeal approach. All the critical elements that have helped other countries tackle the challenge have been incorporated in the National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill, 2010. But the Bill still has to be passed into law by Parliament.

Nevertheless, some states have begun to implement road safety measures in bits and pieces. Tamil Nadu has installed GIS-based software to identify the most accident-prone spots on its roads, enabling the state to target interventions effectively. Kerala has constituted a single road safety authority with a dedicated road safety fund. For, road safety, like much else, is subject to the 80/20 rule of thumb, which sets out that 80% of accidents take place on just 20% of the roads.

In India, four strictly enforced interventions can make an initial impact. The first is enforcing the compulsory use of seat belts and helmets. In Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands in the 1980s and 1990s, a strict enforcement of seat belt and helmet rules, with stringent penalties for non-compliance, halved the number of fatalities.

The second is installing appropriate infrastructure to make the roads safer. Road signs, markings and crash barriers should be treated as bare necessities rather than adornments. Simple measures like segregating pedestrians and non-motorised traffic from the main vehicular stream, and ensuring that sidewalks and road shoulders are usable, can bring down the number of injuries significantly.

The third is tightening the driver-licensing and vehicle-registration systems. Reforms can be kick-started by installing speed cameras and other automated devices at high-risk locations, and imposing credible fines for violations. Compare the $250 fine for jumping a red light in the United States, with the equivalent of $2 for a similar offence in India. And fourth, a string of trauma care centres need to be developed so that victims can reach quality medical care within the golden hour.

Of course, much will still need to be done to change the deep-rooted behaviour of drivers and pedestrians. We must also not lose sight of the fact that road accidents take a huge economic toll on the country — costing an estimated 3% of GDP each year.

Given the seriousness of the issue, in 10 states, the World Bank is providing the know-how for building road safety management systems and financing safe road infrastructure.

India must make road safety an important national priority. That will be the best tribute to Munde and countless others who have suffered so needlessly from neglect in this critical area.

This opinion piece first appeared in the Hindustan Times on 23rd June, 2014.