India offers some of the most spectacular road trips in the world, but the country’s motorised mayhem has made its roads among the most dangerous.
Last weekend, yet another road accident reminded us how a simple activity like cycling at dawn can turn out to be a high-risk affair. Sunita Narain — the feisty head of Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and one of India’s best-known environmental activists — was knocked down by a speeding car while she was cycling to Lodi Gardens from her home in South Delhi’s Green Park early morning.
She needed a nine-hour surgery during which two titanium rods had to be implanted into her broken arms. Ms Narain is reportedly out of danger. There is no information about the errant car driver.
Narain was lucky to be taken to hospital quickly. In India most road accident victims are left unattended on the streets even when hospitals are close by. Few people want to get involved in what may turn out to be a long and messy legal affair.
So the statistics pile up — India accounts for about 10 per cent of road crash fatalities worldwide; more people die in road accidents in this country than in any other country, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO); the estimated road traffic death rate per 100,000 people in India has shot up from 16.8 in 2009 to 18.9 in 2013, much higher than the rate in high-income countries (8.7 per 100,000) and middle income neighbours such as Indonesia (17.7), Pakistan (17.4), Nepal (16), Burma (15), Sri Lanka (13.7), Bhutan (13.2), Mauritius (12.2) and Bangladesh (11.6).
The data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is equally unnerving. In 2011, there were 440,123 road accidents leading to the deaths of 136,834 people — up by some 44 per cent from 2001.
Why are Indian roads such death traps? Anyone who has driven on an Indian road knows they are a chaotic mix of high-speed cars, slow-speed push carts, decrepit vehicles, bicycles, zooming motorcycles, trucks and buses with barely-existent brakes, potholes and ambling cows. Add to this list barely-skilled drivers who think it is humiliatingly non-macho to follow traffic rules.
Then add large-scale encroachments and perennial repairs and sudden roadblocks. The result is that most pedestrians are pushed off the footpaths, if they exist at all, on to roads. The few bicycle lanes that exist have cars parked on them illegally, so cyclists are forced to use car lanes.
Topping it up is non-compliance with most basic safety norms. Penalties exist but, typically, those who are at fault have the option of buying their way out of trouble.
Approximately half the victims of road accidents in this country are what the WHO calls “vulnerable road users” — pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. According to the recently published WHO Global Status Report on Road Safety, though India has laws on speed, seatbelt wearing and helmet wearing, and drunk-driving, they are poorly enforced.
On Delhi’s roads, there is only one norm — might is right. The biggest, flashiest and most powerful among the road users call the shots. The weakest are edged out. Check how many cars and motorcycles have swerved into the few cycle lanes that exist, especially during rush hour.
Hitting the road here means continuously trying to avoid being hit on the road. One grim statistic from the WHO — pedestrians account for 21 per cent of road deaths in India.
The sharp rise in the number of vehicles on our roads in recent years may be a culprit. NCRB says the rate of deaths per thousand vehicles has come down marginally, from 1.3 in 2008 to 1.0 in 2012, but the number of vehicles in the country has shot up by more than 50 per cent and the number of road accidents has increased by 5.8 per cent in the same period.
We still have fewer registered vehicles per 1,000 people than countries like Thailand and Indonesia, but we have more accidents. Globally, growth in motorised traffic does not automatically mean a rise in road injuries.
World Bank data shows India had 18 motorised vehicles per 1,000 people in 2009 while Britain had 523, but India had a road accident death rate of 16.8 per 100,000 people the same year, while Britain had 5.4.
Road traffic injuries and deaths are not just individual tragedies. They cause considerable economic losses not only to the victims and their families but to the nation as a whole.
“These losses arise from the cost of treatment (including rehabilitation and incident investigation) as well as reduced/lost productivity (for example in wages) for those killed or disabled by their injuries, and for family members who need to take time off work (or school) to care for the injured,” says the World Health Organisation.
Though there are few global estimates of the costs of injury, an estimate released in 2000 suggests that the economic cost of road traffic crashes was approximately $518 billion. National estimates have illustrated that road traffic crashes cost countries between one to three per cent of their gross national product, while the financial impact on individual families results in increased borrowing and debt, and even a decline in food consumption.
It is also a major public health problem. Good post-crash care can reduce mortality after road accidents. Quick access to care is critical here.
But only four countries (Bhutan, the Maldives, Thailand and Timor-Leste) in South and South-east Asia have a nationwide emergency access telephone number for post-crash care.
There is an urgent need for road and vehicle safety enhancement and law enforcement. Unfortunately, these are dependent on the regulatory system and we know the state that is in.
To reduce road accidents, the most important factor is political will. If the authorities enforce rules, it will dramatically reduce deaths and injuries. But for that to happen, there has to be one rule for all. Dangerous driving and poor maintenance of vehicles call for severe penalties, no matter who is at fault, without exception. Which political party will take this up in this election season?
-The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at email@example.com