Improving road safety in India

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Every year in India, around 150,000 people are killed in road traffic incidents. Three experts give their views on how the country can improve its road safety record.

India has a poor record on road safety, with recent research from the India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative showing that road injuries were the leading cause of death among males aged 15-39 and the second leading cause of death in this age group for both sexes combined.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says factors that contribute to causing India’s high road traffic fatality rate include the diversity of the traffic mix, with high-speed vehicles sharing road space with vulnerable road users. The WHO adds that unsafe road infrastructure and unsafe vehicles contribute to the high number of road deaths.

In its report, the India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative said that to improve road safety, the government needs to encourage a shift away from using private motor vehicles towards walking, cycling and low emission public transport. It also called for improvements to the health system to help deal with road injuries, such as improving the provision of trauma care at the scene of road accidents, and stronger enforcement of road traffic laws. 

We asked three experts for their views on how India can improve its road safety record.

We interviewed:

Amit Bhatt, Executive director – urban transport, WRI India

Devayan Dey, Director, capital projects and infrastructure, PwC India

Piyush Tewari, Founder and CEO, SaveLIFE Foundation.

What is the current standard of road safety in India?

Amit Bhatt: Road traffic deaths have reached alarming levels globally. Close to 1.35 million
people lose their lives around the world in traffic accidents every year, but India’s road safety is
the worst on record.

In terms of the official statistics, India ranks number one when it comes to road traffic deaths. Approximately 150,000 people lose their lives on Indian roads due to road traffic crashes. In simple terms, with around two per cent of the global motor vehicle fleet, India accounts for about 12 per cent of global road traffic deaths. These deaths and injuries also impact the economic productivity and expenditure of the nation. A study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimated that India loses three per cent of GDP due to road traffic crashes. Therefore, road safety is a significant social, health, and economic issue in India.

Amit Bhatt, Executive director – urban transport, WRI India

Piyush Tewari: India has a poor road safety record for several reasons – ranging from non-compliance with the rules to various infrastructural problems. Wrong practices, such as speeding, drinking and driving and dangerous driving, are rampant throughout the nation. Enforcement systems are largely non-digitised. People do not take precautionary measures such as wearing helmets and seatbelts.

However, vehicle manufacturers also need to prioritise road safety – only three Indian cars have received a five-star safety rating so far. Also, emergency care systems are not equipped to deal with the volumes of road crashes that occur.

Even during the national lockdown, according to SaveLIFE Foundation’s road crash tracker, India witnessed 750 road crash deaths and 1,390 injuries.

While the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019 is a great start, much more needs to be done to reduce the number of road fatalities. The safety of vulnerable road users requires urgent attention from policymakers and officials at the government and community level. Other areas that require significant interventions include crash investigation and emergency care. Finally, strict enforcement needs to be in place throughout the country.

Devayan Dey: There is certainly a need to improve road safety standards in India. But I see some good aspects in the data that keeps me optimistic. If we go by the national dashboard, the data talks of two different narratives. While the absolute numbers might have grown, the national scene can claim some success in containing the fatalities per 100,000 population between 2011 and now. In terms of fatalities per 10,000 vehicles, the number has gone down, which is again a good sign.

At the state level, the narratives are mixed. If we compare state data to global economies, the North Eastern (NE) states in India have done well. If each of the NE states were to be compared to countries globally, many of them are comparable to better performing countries in terms of fatalities per 100,000 population. Even states like West Bengal – which hosts a large population comparable to let’s say, Germany – is not very far away in the metrics. Similarly, there are states on the other extreme of the spectrum.

Of course, one may always point towards arguments around data quality, lesser numbers of vehicles etc. Perhaps there is both a bit of reality as well as perception issues in these discussions. But hopefully, we should be able to put the debate to rest through upcoming initiatives by the government of India like the Integrated Road Accident Database.

However, there is no denying that we are looking at very high numbers of road fatalities. The attributable reasons are around all three elements – infrastructure, vehicle and behaviour. The intensity may vary across each state. Infrastructure has usually received a larger share of the blame, but there is now growing evidence that behaviour is playing a significant role.

Overall, if we compare our numbers to other countries, we are possibly in the same position as Sweden and the UK were some 30 years ago. The challenge (and the opportunity) before us is to squeeze the numbers within the next ten years and make improvements that match what other countries achieved in a period of 30 years or more.

Why does India have a poor road safety record?

Amit Bhatt: There are multiple reasons why, historically, India has a poor road safety record.

Countries that have improved their road safety have often done so through effective legislation. India’s central legislation – the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 – was drafted when the country’s move to motorization was in its early stage. Policymakers wanted to boost motor vehicle ownership and thus prioritised the movement of goods and passengers. The legislation had a big missing piece on road safety. Luckily, it was amended recently.

In addition, institutional fragmentation means that no one is accountable for road safety, which has also driven up the number of crashes. Road safety revolves around four basic E’s – Engineering, Enforcement, Education and Emergency. But when it comes to action, it’s restricted to disjointed efforts mostly involving education and enforcement, which has no significant result on the ground.

What progress is being made?

Amit Bhatt: My career as a transport planner started in 2002 by contributing to a consulting assignment on developing a road safety policy for India. One key recommendation in the policy was to replace or amend the Motor Vehicles Act 1988.

On 1 September 2019, the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019 came into effect. What changed in these 17 years? In 2002, India recorded around 75,000 road fatalities. Today, the number has risen to 1.5 lakh. So better late than never, the country finally has good central legislation. But the challenge now is its implementation.

The other issue is leadership from states on road safety. Luckily, an example from Haryana is changing the discourse. Haryana became the first state in India to embrace the ‘safe systems’ approach to road safety by initiating the Haryana Vision Zero (HVZ) – a programme by the Haryana Government in partnership with civil society and the private sector. The programme has resulted in a five per cent reduction in traffic fatalities at a time when the numbers across the rest of India have increased. Similarly, in Rohtak, Haryana, the city has initiated an exciting project on road safety for school children.

Piyush Tewari: The enactment of the MV (Amendment) Act 2019 is a landmark change in India’s road safety scenario. The act has special provisions for child road safety, electronic enforcement, protection of ‘Good Samaritans’ who help casualties and for accountability for road design, construction and maintenance. Further, the increased penalties serve as a deterrent for violations such as speeding and dangerous driving. Recent data from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways shows that total road crash fatalities in the country between August and December 2019 fell by four per cent and total road crash fatalities in 27 states and eight union territories went down by 29 per cent from January to June 2020.

Maharashtra has witnessed an 8.3 per cent decline in road crashes between 2018 and 2019. The Maharashtra Government has also partnered with different organisations, including SaveLIFE Foundation. As part of this partnership, 43 per cent of road crash deaths between 2016 and 2019 were successfully reduced on the Mumbai Pune Expressway, which was previously one of the deadliest roads in the country. Further, states such as Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand have introduced forensic road crash investigation schemes, which will, in turn, help the policymakers to opt for suitable interventions to prevent crashes.

Piyush Tewari, Founder and CEO, SaveLIFE Foundation

Devayan Dey: Undoubtedly, India is making progress. The last three years have been encouraging. Let me take a few examples of what has been done and is being done.

At the central level, the MV (Amendment) Act 2019 is a significant step which addresses some of the broader legal issues. The vehicle ecosystem has improved significantly with the introduction of various safety features as mandatory ones. The after-sale ecosystem is also set to improve substantially.

The central government is currently focused on several parallel initiatives, like the vehicle scrapping policy, automated inspection and certification centres, automated licensing systems and driver training centres. These will take a few years to implement but will be a game changer once they are in place.

The post-crash care aspect is also significantly improving. Cashless insurance under Ayushman Bharat, the introduction of Advanced Life Support ambulances and the Good Samaritan law all are all good initiatives. Post-crash care is perhaps the lowest hanging fruit. A state like Tamil Nadu has reduced its road death numbers by around 25-30 per cent by significantly focusing on this area.

Also, at state level, there is an increased focus on data and technology. States like Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal have led the country in these initiatives. Nationally, the introduction of the Integrated Road Accident Database (IRAD) can transform such ‘pockets of good practice’ into a national standard. So, we are seeing a clear shift from initiatives based on anecdotes to those that are based on data and evidence.

In urban centres, we are seeing an increased focus on public transport and mass transit projects. This is in addition to initiatives focused on vulnerable road users like pedestrians, cyclists and two-wheelers where we are seeing a focus on streets being redesigned and enforcement being overhauled.

How well are Indian businesses managing road safety? Could companies play a bigger role in improving road safety?

Amit Bhatt: The science of road safety is often misunderstood in India, and the business community is no exception.

For most businesses, road safety is not their priority area of work. It is left for the government’s intervention even though business continues to lose precious human resources due to road traffic crashes. Even when business is involved, their activity is mostly restricted to sporadic education activities and the annual road safety week. The result is there is no tangible change on the ground nor any return on their investment.

The involvement of private business is key to improving road safety, but it needs to be done holistically. The Haryana Vision Zero project is one such example. The project involved government agencies working with private sector companies and civil society and has had a tremendous impact. Companies like Honda Two Wheelers and Nagarro have provided financial support for the project roll-out and Raahgiri Foundation and WRI India are civil society partners that have provided technical expertise. At the same time, government agencies like the Transport Department, police and the public works department are focusing on implementation.

Piyush Tewari: The corporate space is increasingly becoming more involved in road safety.

Companies such as Vodafone India have introduced road safety policies for their employees. These policies include guidelines for the use of protective safety devices (such as helmets and seatbelts), adherence to speed limits, the avoidance of drinking and driving and avoiding dangerous driving. The policies and guidelines also cover the importance of using newer vehicles that are equipped with appropriate safety measures; the need to always carry a driving licence; the importance of driver fatigue management and so on. These company road policies will act as an extra deterrent for road safety malpractices.

Further, there are numerous companies across India – such as Mahindra and Mahindra, HCL, Skoda VolksWagen and others – that are conducting corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities on road safety. These include campaigning and on-the-ground road safety interventions. For example, Mahindra and Mahindra is currently working in partnership with SaveLIFE Foundation to transform the Mumbai Pune Expressway into a zero-fatality corridor.

However, we must remember that the level of involvement of business in road safety in India is insufficient for the volume of road users. There are over 135 million drivers on Indian roads with about 11 million new drivers joining the roads each year, and there isn’t anywhere near enough capacity to train all of them in safe driving techniques. Businesses across the country need to do more. Here are five concrete suggestions:

  1. Companies can ensure that all company vehicles have safety systems, GPS and driver fatigue detection devices
  2. There should be a central registry of all company drivers. This should be done so that when drivers shift jobs from company to company, their training level and experience can be tracked
  3. Company drivers should undergo driver refresher training programmes every year
  4. Businesses involved in the road transportation sector should set up designated rest stops on highways
  5. Company trucks that are driving long distances should have two drivers present to prevent fatigue-related crashes. Both large and small companies should adopt these practices to ensure road safety.

Devayan Dey: There are multiple categories of businesses that can have a positive impact on road safety. Freight operators, highway developers, cab operators and fleet managers all play an essential role in their own way.

On the freight side, the limited data that we have today points to a ‘fatigue’ issue, and over-worked drivers can be a huge hazard on the road.

A primary misconception is that road safety measures are costly, especially for a business in the unorganised sector. However, if a company driver is involved in a road traffic accident, the loss incurred due to damage to goods and people can be overwhelming.

However, there are certainly a few promising initiatives we are seeing around drivers. Many industries who operate fleets have worked on driver rating, route identification and improving drivers’ mental health and wellbeing.

Going forward, I believe insurance companies will have to work alongside the freight industry to make the cost-benefit angle of investments into safer transport more apparent. ‘What’s-in-it-for-me’ is an important question to answer to get all stakeholders on board.

Devayan Dey, Director, capital projects and infrastructure, PwC India

Could businesses play a role in educating and training drivers, pedestrians, school children etc on road safety?

Piyush Tewari: Businesses could potentially be key elements to promoting road safety in the country. With the extent of resources and manpower that they possess, businesses can create powerful, meaningful road safety campaigns, without government intervention.

Firstly, companies should adopt road safety policies to ensure their employees are adhering to the road rules. Further, vehicle manufacturers should place special emphasis on improving the safety standards of their vehicles. Companies involved in road infrastructure projects should take the initiative to create infrastructure models that ensure the safety of all road users with special emphasis on the safety of vulnerable road users.

Companies should view road safety as a business problem. They should take the initiative either to sponsor CSR projects or to undertake business projects to create a meaningful impact on road safety standards. For instance, Toyota has set up 12 driving schools in India as an initiative and Honda has created driver safety training centres in various nations of south east Asia. Although such programmes exist, they are not enough to meet the large demand. Thus, more companies should look into creating these driving schools.

Companies should also look into business projects that can lead to improvements in road safety, such as the creation of paid rest stops or fatigue detection systems. The insurance sector particularly should take up such projects as it faces immense losses due to road crashes. This could also aid the industry in recovering its losses.

Both large and small businesses should undertake those road safety activities that are possible with their available resources, and this will provide a boost to road safety in India.

Has the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019 had a positive or negative impact?

Amit Bhatt: The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019 is a step in the right direction. It addresses three fundamental issues. The first is the institutional set-up. The Act proposes creating a board with state government representation to advise the central and state governments on road safety and traffic management. The Act empowers the central government to come up with a national transport policy, which would help develop a framework for planning, granting permits and setting priorities for the road transport sector.

Second, the Act empowers the government to ask manufacturers to recall motor vehicles if they could pose a risk to the health and safety of road users – whether because of design flaws, omissions or other problems.

Third, the Act introduces enhanced penalties for traffic violations. The implementation of the Act has been a challenge, as many states are still to notify the new provisions. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has hindered the implementation further.

Piyush Tewari: The impact of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019 is contingent on the implementation of the legislation. Thus, the actual effect of the Act can only be determined following the Covid-19 pandemic and after all states have implemented its provisions. SaveLIFE Foundation are confident that, once all states enforce every provision in the Act, there will be a significant improvement in road safety.

What role could vehicle manufacturers play in improving road safety?

Amit Bhatt: Safe vehicles are a pre-requisite for road safety and hence the role of vehicle manufacturers is crucial. Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and airbags were previously not fitted on all vehicles but now they come as a standard safety kit in almost all new cars.

The proposed Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Program (BNVSAP) will be a mandatory assessment system. It will rate motor vehicles with stars according to how they fare against crash tests conducted by the Ministry of Heavy Industries in India. This will ensure that safer vehicles are used on the road.

 Piyush Tewari: Over the last few years, there have been improvements in vehicle safety standards in India. However, there is still a long way to go to create safe vehicles. Vehicle manufacturers should prioritise improving the safety standards of their vehicles and produce models that meet the NCAP 5-star ratings. So far, only three models have received a 5-star rating in India – Mahindra XUV300, Tata Altroz Global and Tata Nexon Global.

Also, a large number of vehicles manufactured in India are body-on-frame models, which perform poorly for safety. So there should be a particular focus on creating sturdy frames for vehicles. Also, there are no vehicle safety guidelines for two-wheelers and heavy vehicles.

The SaveLIFE Foundation monitors bus crashes and there has been an increasing trend of mass fatality crashes over the last few years. These fatalities are due to weak vehicle frames that compromise both passenger and mechanical safety standards. Therefore, manufacturers should make a special effort to build strong frames to prevent such mishaps.

The use of artificial intelligent systems, such as fatigue detection systems and intelligent brake systems, can further boost the safety standards of vehicles and lead to a reduction in road crash fatalities.

Devayan Dey: There are already several safety technology initiatives for vehicles being undertaken by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and implemented by the manufacturers. These include ABS, speed alert, airbags, red beacon lights etc.

Reaching an adequate level of safety does have implications for the vehicle’s cost. Unfortunately, the Indian market can be price-sensitive, and safety may not be on the top of consumers’ minds. The government should therefore do more to create awareness about the different safety standards of vehicles on the market. Star ratings such as GNCAP are a good way to create demand before manufacturers make massive investments in improving the safety of their vehicles.

Vehicle ratings make it easier for the consumer to recognise good standards of vehicle safety and acknowledge it by paying a premium.

Is sufficient medical care provided at the scene of traffic accidents?

Piyush Tewari: There are many gaps in the emergency response systems in the country. There is still a need for efficient ambulance deployment systems as well as sufficient infrastructure.

Timely access to emergency care within the ‘golden hour’ – the first critical hour after a crash – needs to be strengthened. Every state should have an efficient ambulance deployment system that has a response time (time taken for an ambulance to reach the patient after a call) of under 20 minutes and a handover time (time taken for the patient to be taken to the hospital) of under an hour.

There is also scope for improvement in the quality of emergency services in India. Ambulances are often not adequately equipped or compliant with the National Ambulance Code. In addition, there are gaps in intensive care and specialised care in the country.

Further, bystander care is essential for saving lives, as a number of crash victims die on the road before reaching the hospital. Despite there being a provision for the protection of ‘Good Samaritans’ in the MV (Amendment) Act 2019, there is very little awareness about this. The law should be effectively implemented throughout the nation so that bystanders do not face harassment by authorities while administering emergency care to victims.

SaveLIFE Foundation also believes that the country needs an enabling framework to ensure the right to emergency care. This will ensure that the responsibility for medical care will lie not only with medical units but also with the administration and will thus lead to saving many more lives on the roads and in the country in general.

Are the penalties and fines for dangerous driving and other road safety offences by drivers strong enough?

Amit Bhatt: The most talked-about provision of the MV (Amendment) Act 2019 is the enhanced penalties for traffic violations. Many traffic offences in India, such as drunk driving and speeding, currently have inadequate penal provisions.

Enhanced penalties alone will not act as a deterrent and hopefully improve safety. Therefore, the provisions that act as a deterrent to traffic rule violations are essential, and in this, the frequency of getting caught for violating traffic rules has to increase. There is a need to look at the system in totality, and hopefully, once the new Act is implemented in entirety, we will see a positive impact of road safety.

Piyush Tewari: States that have implemented the provisions of the MV (Amendment) Act 2019 saw a decline in road crash fatalities in September-December 2019 in comparison with September-December 2018. For example, Gujarat saw a 17 per cent decline in road crash fatalities and Haryana witnessed a seven per cent decline. States such as Delhi have strengthened enforcement with the use of technology in the form of speed cameras and other such AI systems. This has contributed to a 15 per cent decline in fatalities in Delhi.

Further, crash deaths due to dangerous driving and other such offences have also reduced in many of the states that have effectively implemented the provisions of the Act. For example, Karnataka witnessed a 15 per cent decline in crash deaths due to dangerous driving. However, a lot more needs to be around enforcement, particularly on highways, where most of the crashes take place. Most of the highways across the country lack electronic enforcement systems.

There should also be a dedicated Highway Safety Police at either the central or state levels to monitor highways on the same lines as the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). In 2019, about 60 per cent of all road crash deaths took place on highways. With strict enforcement measures, these numbers could be reduced in the years to come.


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