Road Safety in India: Don’t Blame the Roads (Only)
333. That’s how many Indians die, on average, in road accidents each day, according to official figures. A 2015 WHO report on road safety puts the figure at nearly double, with many, many thousands more seriously injured.
Regardless of the exact number, think of it this way: It’s the same as an entire coach of passengers on a packed Delhi metro dying every day. Yet road deaths don’t garner quite the attention that such a tragedy would.
Road safety is dependent on a multitude of factors, many of which drivers don’t have control over – road conditions, vehicle standards, other people’s underage, drunk, or untrained driving. Yet there are many life-saving measures well within a driver’s power that can mitigate the consequences of accidents – most obviously, the use of seatbelts, helmets and child restraints.
So, why aren’t we taking these measures?
“We did a large study and discovered that most people in a city like Bangalore are well aware of the laws, but don’t follow them simply because there is no one to check,” said Dr. G. Gururaj, Head of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion at the National Institute of Mental Health And Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS). “If enforcement becomes strong, it will nudge them to become more safety conscious.”
Most experts agree with Dr. Gururaj’s assessment that fear of getting caught is the necessary driver for change, though they differ on the means of establishing this fear. Amol Tope, chairman of SucceedSafe, a national NGO that trains the public on road safety, sees expanding enforcement resources as the key.
“We need a healthy policeman-civilian ratio to enforce all rules the same way, with strict deterrents for every violation,” he said.
But Saji Cherian, director of operations at Save Life Foundation, which lobbies for improving road safety and emergency care, says while an expanded force would be helpful, it would only go so far.
“Since cops can’t be placed at every red light, there is a capacity constraint,” he said.
Instead, Cherian says technology has to be brought in, citing examples of developing countries that have used tech such as automated traffic cameras to instill a fear of getting caught anytime, anywhere, and thereby strengthen compliance.
Yet even Dr. Gururaj admits that only goes so far in explaining India’s low use of life-saving accoutrement.
“Most people think they can never be in an accident,” he added.
Indian law requires drivers and all passengers to wear a seatbelt, but check a random car in any Indian metro and you’ll find few behind the front seat complying. Some justify it by the low speeds common on packed urban roads.
“In Mumbai, where traffic crawls, I don’t see why I need to wear a seatbelt,” said one Mumbai businessman who did not want to be identified by name. “But if I am on, say, the Mumbai-Pune expressway, I must.”
“Most people think they can never be in an accident.”
It’s a logic that makes sense until you watch a simulation of a car crash at ~55 kph. As one Australian government site explains it: “While [48 to 60 kph] seems slow in your car… Imagine a thick sheet of glass whacking you in the head at that speed.” But facts like these seldom get cited.
The seatbelt-agnostic businessman said he would consider buckling up in the city if police began cracking down – or if the fines were higher. (The fines for not using a seatbelt or helmet range from Rs. 100 for the first offence and Rs. 300 for a subsequent offence, amounts that appear to be negligible to urban Indian motorists, where seas of exposed heads still congregate at any given junction and passengers sit unrestrained in backseats.)
In a brief chat, an owner and driver of a 500cc bike in Mumbai, who wished not to be identified by name, said he still doesn’t wear his helmet despite getting caught and fined Rs. 100. He says the speed at which he travels doesn’t warrant wearing a helmet. (This simulation of a ~60 kph crash – as well as most studies – suggest otherwise.)
The debates around penalties and enforcement are moot for areas of road safety that have not been legislated at all. For example, India has no law requiring the use of child restraints in a moving vehicle, meaning that motivation to adopt this safety measure must be entirely self-generated.
“People think nothing will happen to them in a short distance, and so they can carry their child in their lap in the car,” said Dr. Gururaj. “Only when something goes wrong do they realize they should not have done it.”
According to the US Center for Disease Control, car seat use reduces the risk of death for infants by 71% and for toddlers by 54%. Parental arms do not provide the same protection. Skeptics need only watch the multitude of videos depicting low-speed crash simulations with unrestrained child dummies, like this one.
Yet it’s difficult for these statistics and anecdotes to sway even parents who are aware of them. India’s culture around safety clashes with one of indulgence, said Jyoti Ganapathi. Ganapathi, who is a contributor to The Swaddle, says she uses a car seat with her 2-year-old son, but not consistently. “We’re a family of 5 adults. If all of us have to go to a place that is about 2 km away we take (our son) in our lap and go. It seems silly to take two cars for the sake of the car seat,” she said.
Ganpathi said she knows few other parents who have a car seat, and even fewer who use it consistently. Using one is seen not as precaution, but as buying into a Western mindset of over-cautiousness, she said.
Perhaps, then, personal road safety measures stem not only from the fear of getting caught, but from a prioritization of safety over quotidian convenience. And who is responsible for that cultural shift?
We are, says Tope, but it’s an effort that requires us to go against the grain of our own childhood experiences.
“Since road safety education has not been a big part of school curriculum so far, many people just aren’t aware of the consequences,” Tope said. “Or they have a chalta-hai attitude towards safety, one that is reinforced when they see others around them flouting the rules.”
For this reason, Tope and his organization work with children to inculcate good road safety habits, he said, in the hope that they will then influence their parents.
But by Tope’s own admission, this is a long game, which means it’s unlikely behaviour – or the death toll – will be changing any time soon.