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Dinesh Mohan: The road to death and injury

Dinesh Mohan  |  New Delhi 

While the government is toying with the idea of increasing the speed limit on highways, says the designing of Indian highways ignores basic principles of safety
Road traffic injuries are the only where society and decision makers still accept death and disability on a large scale. This human sacrifice is deemed necessary to maintain high levels of mobility and is seen as a necessary "externality" of doing business. Deaths among workers in factories, mines, railroads and dockyards were commonplace and accepted in early twentieth century. This is not acceptable any more. Many societies do not award the death penalty no matter how serious the crime. This attitude is absent when it comes to road traffic injuries and fatalities.
Recent estimates suggest that road traffic injuries result in more than one hundred thousand fatalities in India annually another 20-30 lakh persons suffer injuries that need hospitalisation or expert medical treatment. For a young Indian the chance of being killed or disabled from a road traffic injury is higher than a heart attack, This trend is showing no signs of decline. Hardly a day goes by when an angry crowd does not try to lynch a driver or burn a vehicle involved in a pedestrian crash. Villagers on their own have also constructed "illegal" speed humps (speed-breakers) in thousands of villages to slow down vehicles speeding through their neighbourhoods. But policy makers, courts, police departments, engineers and NGOs keep pushing for policies that have been shown not to work.
According to the Road Traffic Safety Bill passed by the Swedish Parliament in 1997, "The responsibility for every death or loss of health in the road transport system rests with the person responsible for the design of that system". This puts the responsibility on the engineers who build and maintain the road and the police department that manages traffic on that road. Not primarily on the people who use the road because it has been demonstrated that road user behaviour is conditioned by the system design and how it is managed. This view has been endorsed and supported by the World Health Organisation's World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention released three years ago. Many in India have this report on their desks but seem to ignore its contents and its recommendations.
Take the case of our intercity highways that are being converted to four or six lanes. Now car owners are thrilled to speed through at velocities in excess of 100 km per hour sharing the road space with pedestrians, cyclists and tractors. This violates all principles of safe transport. When a high-speed road is constructed in, say, Netherlands, they have to ensure that it is a separate facility and another low speed road is provided for slower traffic. Even the design of our highways ignores basic principles of safety accepted the world over. For example, all our highways have medians 30 cm or greater in height separating the two directions of traffic and a sharp slope on the sides. Both these features are prohibited on high-speed roads. If your tyre touches the median it will be destroyed, your car will be launched in space and land on the road spinning. For this reason, no raised obstructions are allowed on roads where vehicles travel at speeds greater than 50 km per hour. You have to provide a 5 m wide run off area, or, if you don't have the space a guard rail or a concrete barrier (called a New Jersey barrier) is provided to slow down the vehicle and keep it on the road. This neglect of basic design principles has resulted in hundreds of needless deaths on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. Thousands more will die uselessly on our new highways in the years to come.
The situation in our cities is no better. There is no European or Japanese city where the speed limit is more than 50 km per hour on major roads and more than 30 km per hour on local residential streets. This is achieved by road design that makes it difficult to speed, enforcement and modern technological tools. We know that at a 30 km per hour impact, the probability of death for a pedestrian is about 10 per cent and at 50 km per hour about 90 per cent. This is the scientific basis for setting city speed limits. This is also why no cities with low crash rates have built high speed roads crisscrossing them. We, on the other hand, are building highways and flyovers that encourage people to speed and discourage use of public transport. Not one flyover design in the country has provided for safe entrances and exits.
We also know from experience that road users are not deterred by extreme forms of punishment or very heavy fines. However, they do respond quickly to their perception of the probability of being caught. This is why helmet laws are so effective when there is police presence on the road. On the other hand, sending fine notices by post to offenders in Delhi does not seem to have had much effect as crash rates continue to increase. This is probably because no other road user knows that someone has been caught violating a rule. It is important that every day a road user witnesses someone being hauled up for jumping a red light, speeding or driving dangerously through traffic. Only possible when we have continuous patrolling of the streets and well designed random policing systems. Instead of instituting well-proven procedures, we continue to push exorbitant fines and jail terms. If severe punishment was the solution then the daily lynching of errant drivers and road rage should have brought down our crash rates to zero.
Our management of traffic at crossings best exemplifies our lack of scientific approach. We allow free left turns at traffic lights and the police officials zealously defend this practice. This allows vehicles to move continuously and there is no safe time for pedestrians to cross the road. The pedestrians then move further upstream and run across the road at their peril. We then blame them for jaywalking, being stupid or both. We continue the bad practice when most cities with good safety records do not allow free turns at crossings and provide safe pedestrian crossings every 700-800 m on the surface and not subways or foot overbridges.
These are just a few examples of wrong policies being pursued in the face of available evidence to the contrary. The consequence of all this is that essential policies and countermeasures needed to control the epidemic of road traffic injuties remain neglected. The first step in road traffic injury control would be to implement those policies that have international validity and those that have a fair chance of success irrespective of the income levels. The second would be to set up at national or regional levels, official road safety agencies that are independent of road building departments. These agencies would oversee data collection, standard setting, policy evaluation and research activities. The third step would be to establish and strengthen research and teaching centres in all areas associated with road safety. This would slowly help us feel our way in the right direction.

First Published: Sat, April 07 2007. 00:00 IST