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India unlikely to meet UN targets for halving road deaths without ‘rapid improvements’, says report

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India needs to urgently improve its efforts and investment in road safety if it is to stand any chance of meeting a goal set by the United Nations (UN) of halving the number of deaths due to road traffic accidents, a new report has warned.

The research found that on current trends, the country will fail to achieve the UN target of halving the death rate for road injuries in the period 2015-2020, even 10 years later, in 2030. The report therefore recommends that India “scales up” its efforts on road safety, through steps such as stronger enforcement of traffic laws, better road and vehicle design and investment in public transport, such as buses, to reduce motorcycle and car usage.

The report was commissioned by a group of organisations, including the Indian Council of Medical Research and Public Health Foundation of India, and published in The Lancet Public Health. It analysed data recorded about the causes of deaths in all states in India to calculate the estimated number, type and rate of road injury deaths during 1990-2017.

The research found that on current trends, the country will fail to achieve the UN target of halving the death rate for road injuries in the period 2015-2020, even 10 years later, in 2030.

The researchers found that the number of deaths due to road injuries in India rose by 58.7 per cent in the period 1990-2017, from 137,901 to 218,876, meaning there were around 600 road deaths a day during 2017.

The proportion of deaths due to road injuries among all deaths in India also increased during the same period, from 1.7 per cent to 2.2 per cent. In 2017, India accounted for 17.6 per cent of all global deaths due to road injuries, an increase on the country’s 12 per cent global share in 1990.

The report says that the road injury death rate in India “decreased slightly” by 9.2 per cent in the period 1990-2007, from 18.9 deaths per 100,000 population to 17.2 per 100,0000. However, it warns that if this “slow decrease” in the death rate continues, India and its states will not achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of halving the number of road deaths from 2015 to 2020, even by the later date of 2030.

The report reveals that the overall death rate for road injuries in 2017 varied by up to 2.6 times between states in India, and the death rate was “relatively higher” in the less developed states compared to the more developed states. During 1990-2017, the death rate “broadly” reduced significantly in the more developed states compared to the less developed ones. For example there was 38.2 per cent reduction in the road death rate in Delhi while the road death rate in Odisha rose by 17 per cent.

The report also found that road injury was the leading cause of death among males aged 15-39 in India in 2017, and was the second leading cause of death in this age group for both sexes combined in the same year.

In 2017, pedestrians accounted for 35.1 per cent of all deaths due to road injuries in India; motorcyclists 30.9 per cent; motor vehicle occupants 26.4 per cent; and pedal cyclists 7 per cent. 77 per cent of the deaths were in males and the death rate for males was three times higher than for females.

The report also found that the national death rates for motorcyclists and pedal cyclists were 69 per cent and 33 per cent higher respectively than the global average.

The highest “crude” death rates for road injuries in males in 2017 were in Uttarakhand, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh. The highest crude death rates for road injuries in females were in Manipur followed by Jharkhand and Punjab.

Commenting on the findings, the lead author of the study, Professor Rakhi Dandona from the Public Health Foundation of India, said: “Rapid urbanisation and economic growth in India has led to substantial increases in vehicle density and traffic mix but the infrastructure and levels of traffic law enforcement are struggling to keep pace with it, resulting in increased number of road injury deaths.

“Road injury needs multi-sectorial action across three levels – to prevent crashes from occurring, to prevent injury if a crash occurs, and then to prevent death or disability among those injured.

“For this to happen, we need to move from the fatalistic attitude conveyed by ‘accident’ to prevent this needless loss of lives.

“Road safety for pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cyclists needs to be prioritised to ensure that the youth of our country do not face untimely death.”

The report makes a number of recommendations which it says could help India to reach the UN SDG goal of halving road deaths by a later target date of 2030. These include stronger enforcement of road traffic laws; a shift away from private motor vehicles towards walking, cycling and low emission public transport; and enhancing the role of the health system to deal with road injuries, such as improving the provision of trauma care at the scene of road accidents.

The report found that road injury was the leading cause of death among males aged 15-39 in India in 2017.

The report adds that, with the road accident death rate varying substantially between the states, the researchers' analysis of the road accident trends for each state over the past 27 years “can provide guidance for national-level and state-level interventions to target populations at increased risk to reduce these [traffic] deaths”.

Reacting to the report, Professor Vinod K. Paul, honourable member of NITI Aayog (the National Institute of Transforming India), said: “Deaths from road injuries are preventable with stringent implementation of laws and policies by state governments and implementing agencies.

“Ensuring timely access to healthcare services for road injury victims, post-crash care, augmenting the health system and co-ordination amongst the enforcement and implementation agencies can reduce the large burden India is facing.”

Dr Hendrik J Bekedam, the World Health Organization (WHO) representative to India, said that the introduction of stronger road safety laws and penalties in the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019 was a “landmark step by the government of India that recognises the significance of the matter and the urgency to act”.

However, he warned that: “Implementation [of the new road safety laws] is the key to ensure that people are safe on roads.”

Professor K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, said: “Road traffic injuries are an entirely man-made epidemic which should be eliminated through a mix of good public administration for providing better roads with good lighting, strong laws and regulations with strict enforcement and penalties for violations, public education on safe practices and sane civic conduct.

"The fact that we are markedly off track for the 2020 target set by the SDGs sounds the siren for accelerating actions to improve road safety and putting the brakes on the deadly and disabling dangers that befall pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and automobile occupants.”

The report can be found here.

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