It was a lazy evening at home, and the kids had gone out to play with their friends. This meant that, for a change, the television remote was at my disposal. Some relentless channel surfing had landed me on BBC-Earth that was playing the travelogue Joanna Lumley’s India. Actor, author and activist, Joanna Lumley was born during the last days of the British-Raj, and India has been home for several generations of her family. For this television series, she had returned to travel the length and breadth of her erstwhile home and explore its diverse landscapes and traditions. I had landed up on an episode where she travels from the very South of the country all the way to the foothills of the Himalayas. After a captivating hour-long ‘journey’ on screen, she paused and uttered the concluding lines, “India has got everything. You will be mad not to come here”. While Joanne may have exaggerated a bit when it comes to the usage of the word mad, but for sure we have some of the most maddening and dangerous places in the world, and, one of them is Indian-roads.
What is common between celebrities like Actor- Paul Walker, Princess- Diana, Wrestler- Randy Savage, Actress- Monisha, Journalist- Bob Simon, Comedian- Jaspal Bhatti and Violinist- Balabhaskar? As you may have guessed correctly, we lost all of them in road accidents. Not just for the rich and the famous, fatalities resulting from road traffic accidents are a major and growing public health problem across the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared road traffic accidents as a major public health problem that kills about 1.25 million people and injures about 50 million people a year. Almost 90% of such casualties occur in developing countries. Surprisingly, annual deaths due to traffic accidents are twice the number killed by war, crime and terrorism combined.
During the decade of 2000, road length in India had increased by about 39%, but at the same time the number of motor vehicles has increased by 158%. This continuing and constant increase in the number of vehicles on roads has led to congestion and contributed to road fatalities. According to the Transport Research Wing of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, a total of about 5 lakh road accidents were reported by states and union territories in the calendar year 2017. This claimed close to 1.5 lakh lives and caused injuries to almost 5 lakh people. To put it simply, one person dies on Indian roads every three minutes.
The odds of winning a lottery like the Powerball or Mega Millions in the US are estimated to be about 1 in 175 million. However, the odds of dying in a car accident are at about 1 in 5000. In fact, along with diseases of the heart, lung, cancer and stroke, motor vehicle accidents rank in the top 5 in the odds of dying list. It is found that the distribution of road accident deaths and injuries varies according to age, gender and time. Among all age groups, people of the economically active age group of 30-59 years are most vulnerable. Gender-wise comparisons show that males lead and account for almost 85% of all fatalities. The states of Goa and Kerala have most shares of accidents per lakh population while Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu top the list with maximum crash deaths. It’s observed that 67% road accidents take place between 9am and 9pm. Among vehicle categories involved in road accidents, two-wheelers accounted for the highest share in total accidents with almost 34%, while light vehicles comprising cars, jeeps and taxis as a category constituted 25%.
There are several factors responsible for accidents, but drivers’ fault is found to be the most important one, accounting for up to 80% of total accidents with reasons like driving under the influence of alcohol, texting while driving, over-speeding or falling asleep at the wheel. Causes other than human error include potholed streets, manufacturing defects in vehicles etc. According to estimates from the World Health Organization, traffic crashes cost most countries about 3% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Thankfully, road traffic fatalities are preventable to a large extent. Although solutions for road safety problems in India may differ from other countries, basic principles remain the same. These include good road design and traffic management, improved vehicle standards, speed control, the use of seat belts and helmets, and the enforcement of alcohol limits.
Road accidents and related injuries and fatalities are highly dependent on the speed of motor vehicles. Empirical evidences suggest that an average increase in speed of 1 Km/hour is associated with a 3% higher risk of a crash involving an injury. Another reason for more people dying in a metal box on wheels is because they aren't wearing seat belts, and an average of 15 deaths occurs daily due to that. Data from India shows that only one in every four car occupants use seatbelts and those living in the South of the country are most reluctant to use this simple life-saving technology. Recent findings from a 17-city survey in India by a leading automobile manufacturer showed that maximum number of people do not wear seat belts due to weak law enforcement. The other list of reasons attributed by people for not wearing seat belts is strange and funny too. Some people think that wearing a seat belt might ruin their clothes while many have this perception that buckling up affects their image negatively. Research further adds that the co-drivers travelling in an SUV are mostly the ones that do not like wearing a seatbelt, while those in luxury cars prefer it the most. Survey results also reveal that the share of women drivers skipping this mandatory rule while driving is higher at 81% in comparison to their male counterparts at 68%.
It’s been definitely a crazy few weeks that we have been living through. Sparked by a spate of judgments by the courts, age-old belief systems, traditions, and gender equality are being debated vociferously in the media as well as the ‘chai pe charchas’, across India. We may still be far from hearing the last word on most of those issues, but safety on our roads is something that affects all of us, cutting across religion, gender, or location. In the week of writing this piece, I had driven close to three-thousand kilometers on South-Indian roads. The palpable difference since the last decade would be the increase in the number of vehicles on the roads as well as better infrastructure and condition of roads. But the scant regard to own safety and that of others on the road seems to be very rampant. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself”. For starters, a helmet for all two-wheeler riders, wearing of seat belts by everyone in the car, keeping the mobiles away while driving, and a little more courtesy towards other drivers will help. Unlike the board game of snakes and ladders, we need much more than luck to win the game on the roads, and liberal doses of common sense and restraint can only help the cause.
The author is Co-founder & Director @ BioQuest Solutions Pvt. Ltd, a Bangalore based MNC that has been partnering with clients across the life-sciences knowledge value chain since 2005.