India, despite just 1 per cent of global motor vehicles, accounts for more than 10 per cent of all road traffic deaths globally. Annually, around 150,000 people lose their lives on Indian roads
Recently, Nitin Gadkari, the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, said that the government has set up a target of 50 per cent reduction in road-accident deaths by 2024. It’s indeed a welcome statement, for a significant cause. He also talked about sensitising the stakeholders to collectively improve road safety and fix accident-prone black spots. This is extremely crucial because road safety is multi-disciplinary, requiring multiple agencies to work towards a common goal.
Two crucial questions emerge from Gadkari’s statement. One, is it possible to reduce traffic crashes by 50 per cent? Two, if yes, how can India achieve this reduction? Before we dive into these details, let’s first look at India’s current road safety scenario.
As of now, India probably has the worst road safety record in the world. A country that has only 1 per cent of global motor vehicles accounts for more than 10 per cent of all road traffic deaths globally. Annually, around 150,000 people lose their lives on Indian roads. Pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists form the vulnerable road-user category as they have the least safety protection in case of an accident. In the case of cities, the vulnerable road users form more than 3/4th of such fatalities. Another often forgotten aspect is that the burden of a road traffic crash is not only borne by the victim, but by his or her entire family. In fact, several studies have shown how families sink into poverty due to road traffic crashes.
Another matter of concern is that road traffic deaths in India have been on a consistent rise in the last few decades. Therefore, it is essential to explore and devise ways to reduce these rising numbers. The good news is that it’s possible. The European Union countries, for example, were able to reduce 53 per cent of their fatalities between 2011 and 2016. So yes, if we put our heart and minds to it, we really can reduce road traffic deaths by a significant margin, provided we take the right steps.
Now that we know we can improve road safety, it’s just about finding answers to the question: How?
The traditional approach to road safety revolves around the philosophy that a person is responsible for his/her own safety. This means that education and mass media campaigns will improve bad road behaviours such as bad drivers, reckless driving, speeding, etc. Well, after years and years of living with such an approach, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. The lack of improvement in road safety clearly indicates that this traditional approach has clearly not worked and we must think afresh.
This is where we can say hello to a ‘Safe System Approach’ or ‘Vision Zero’ — as a modern approach to road safety. The EU countries have successfully implemented this approach to improve road safety.
‘To err is human’
Contrary to the traditional approach, the very first principle of Vision Zero states that human beings make (or will make) errors. So, an effective road safety system must account for human errors. This means that we need a forgiving infrastructure.
The second important principle is to move from individual to collective responsibility. This means that road safety should be considered a shared responsibility as it involves infrastructure designers, engineers, administrators, policy and lawmakers, law enforcement, and the public.
Safety first, always
The third important principle is that contrary to the belief, people value their lives and want safety on the road. This means that safety should come first before everything else. This means that, for example, if a project would reduce travel time but would come at the cost of lowering safety, that project should never be considered.
The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, which is leading the road safety improvement work in the county, should adopt this approach. Well, the good thing is that there is already a working example to follow, and that’s Haryana Vision Zero (HVZ).
Haryana is the first state in India to adopt a Vision Zero approach by starting the HVZ campaign in May 2017. The HVZ campaign involved the state government working closely with civil society and the private sector to improve road safety in the state. The HVZ campaign invited great traction and achieved some tremendous outcomes. In the two years, the HVZ project saved over 400 lives in Haryana and reduced over 1,000 grievous injuries, resulting in a staggering return of over 900 per cent on its investment. While the COVID-19 pandemic brought the HVZ project to a halt, it’s now time to bring it back to Haryana and the rest of the country.
Road traffic crashes are now globally recognised as an epidemic, and India cannot afford a business-as-usual attitude towards road safety. We need to develop a vision toward zero deaths and injuries by putting people first so that our roads are no longer the most dangerous in the world. Yes, we can achieve the ambitious target of 50 per cent reduced road accident deaths, but only if we bypass the traditional speed breakers to road safety and cruise onto the highway with a safe systems approach.
The writer is director, Nagarro. Views expressed are personal.
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