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Death rides the roads

It was supposed to be a fun trip to Renuka Lake via Nahan in Himachal. But little did I realise that the journey would turn out to be a nightmare for me.

t was dusk. My friend who was driving was finding it difficult to negotiate the hairpin bends. The road was full of potholes. And there were no road signs. Our car fell into a gorge while taking a sharp turn. I was on the back seat. There was no medical facility nearby. It took around 12 hours to get us proper trauma care. My friends escaped with minor wounds. I suffered a severe spinal injury that crippled me for life. For the past 13 years, I have been confined to a wheelchair. I design websites — but even normal functions like using the keyboard are an uphill task for me.

But I wanted to fight back. I opened a non governmental organisation in Chandigarh called Arrive Safe to educate people about road safety.

For every road death in India, there are 15 life-altering injuries and 70 minor injuries. So I see my organisation as a mass movement to preserve human life on the road.

— Harman Singh Sidhu, now in his late 30s, Chandigarh.

Death and injuries on India’s roads have become all too common. The statistics are shocking. Over the last five years, the number of deaths and injuries on the roads has soared (see chart). Trauma Care International, a global organisation dedicated to developing trauma care across the world, reports that a vehicular crash occurs every three minutes, and a death every six minutes because of accidents on Indian roads. Indeed, road traffic injuries now are the sixth leading cause of death in India.

What’s more, a study by Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme (Tripp), Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, a World Health Organization (WHO) collaborating centre in India, shows that road traffic fatalities had been increasing by about 8 per cent a year in India between 2000 and 2006.

A study by the department of epidemiology, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (Nimhans), Bangalore, predicts that India will witness 200,000 road deaths every year and that 3.5 million road accident victims will have to be hospitalised annually by 2015.

Yet the official figures may be just the tip of the iceberg. Another Nimhans study shows that road deaths are underestimated by at least 5 per cent. “The police are the primary source of information for accidents. But in most cases, they don’t follow up on road accident deaths within the stipulated 30-day period (road death in India is defined as a death occurring within 30 days of a crash),” says Rohit Baluja, who represents India at the UN Global Road Safety Commission and heads the Institute of Road Traffic Education in Delhi.

India has one of the worst road safety records in the world, according to the Global Status Report on Road Safety: Time for Action released by WHO this year. The country tops the list of 178 countries with high death numbers on the roads, ahead of China, the US and Russia.

“People raise such a hue and cry if there are 150 swine flu deaths in the country over a few months. For all we know, road accidents might be killing more than that every day,” exclaims Dinesh Mohan, Volvo Chair Professor at IIT and coordinator, Tripp.

Though no detailed data on highway crashes are available, unofficial estimates suggest that they account for around 65 per cent of deaths on the roads.

To be sure, the bare statistics don’t reflect the impact road accidents have on ordinary lives — as Calcutta housewife Sheila Baksh would testify.

On August 25, 2003, our life changed forever. My husband left for work at 7.30 am. For some reason, his office car didn’t pick him up that day.

He was crossing a street in Shyambazar when a speeding milk truck hit him. A month before his death, we went to Pune to enrol our daughter for an MBA at an institute there. My son had just got a bank job. So my husband was very happy that our children were doing well. I don’t know whom to blame for his death…

Yet about 60-90 per cent of road accidents in India involve pedestrians and two- and three-wheelers. “The epidemic of two-wheeler crashes has already begun in South Asia,” says a WHO adviser who does not wish to be identified, adding that she has had a frustrating experience making Indian policymakers realise the importance of laying down laws to curb this menace.

M.N. Sreehari, advisor to the government of Karnataka for traffic, transportation and infrastructure, says two-wheelers account for at least 38 per cent of accidents in Bangalore. The sheer number of two-wheelers on India’s roads suggests the magnitude of the problem. Two-wheelers account for about 71 per cent of the total number of registered vehicles in India (around 90 million at present).

The threat from autorickshaws cannot be underestimated either. Mantu Samaddar of Kalyani, West Bengal, knows that only too well. His left knee was crushed when his leg slammed against a cow in the middle of a busy, congested street near Dum Dum through which his auto was speeding. “The auto had four people in the back, including me. So my leg was almost dangling outside the vehicle,” says the central excise officer, who has lost most of his savings over the past 17 years in medical treatment.

Experts say that flawed road engineering or traffic management is an important reason for the rising number of road injuries and deaths in the country. “For vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists, road design must ensure that they are not exposed to high speed traffic,” says Sanjay Singh, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, who has researched road accidents in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. “The road space in UP cities like Lucknow and Kanpur has hardly any provision for pedestrians and cyclists to safely use roads.”

The situation in Calcutta, which has a low fatality rate (around 35 per million population in 2006, versus Agra’s 317 per million and Delhi’s 140 per million) because of slow-moving traffic and roadcongestion, is no different. “It’s a crime not to have designated bus stops and segregated passageways for pedestrians in a city. A lot of lives could be saved if the authorities paid enough attention to road designing,” says Sandhi Mukherjee, former traffic chief of the Calcutta Police.

Some argue that there is a complete lack of coordination between the police and the traffic engineering department in states like West Bengal. “The police should first identify difficult intersections in the city. Then they should come to us for solutions after ensuring that the political bosses are not going to meddle in our work,” says A.K. Das, superintending traffic and transportation engineer, West Bengal transport department.

*Estimate; injury data for 2008 not available. (Source: NCRB report on accidental deaths, 2006-2007, the latest available)

Still, the cost of road accidents is borne not just by the victims but by the nation. A Planning Commission review put it at Rs 55,000 crore in 2002 (about 3 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product). “It could be around Rs 75,000 crore now,” says Baluja.

The Centre maintains that road safety matters continue to be its “highest priority” area. “We are trying our best to improve our international image on road safety,” says Kamal Nath, the Union road and transport minister. He adds that the government has allocated Rs 79 crore for road safety schemes across the country for 2009-2010.

Nath also counters the view that the official figures are underestimates. “However, the government is working on a project financed by the World Bank to develop a suitable format for the collection of primary road accidents data,” he reveals. “My ministry has already developed a 19-point format in this regard and a pilot project has already been conducted in Tamil Nadu. Efforts are also being made to train the personnel concerned with the collection of primary data.”

But WHO experts say that even in Thailand and Sri Lanka, proper injury surveillance cells exist and the health ministries, transport ministries, police and hospitals cross-check road accident data with one another. “It cannot be the sole responsibility of the road transport department,” says a disability and injury prevention adviser at the WHO office in Delhi. Nath replies, “My ministry is closely working with the ministry of health and the National Highway Authority of India to set up a comprehensive trauma care system, especially along national highways.”

According to experts, a unified central agency dealing with road safety and traffic management in India is the need of the hour. In fact, the Centre is deliberating on setting up a National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board. Kamal Nath says the board will act as an independent agency to oversee all aspects of road safety activities.”

But the board may take a while to be set up as a law has to be passed in Parliament for this. Until that happens, several measures could be implemented to reduce the risk of road accidents. “For example, the Motor Vehicles Act has a provision for making the wearing of helmet mandatory. But it’s not binding on states. If it’s made so, at least 5,000-10,000 lives will be saved a year,” says Dinesh Mohan.

Clearly, even a small step can save a life. And it could be that of a loved one.

Traffic death rate per million persons in 2006, the latest year for which figures are available. (Source: Tripp)

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