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New routes to improve road safety in India

October 07, 2021
 

The cause, concern and change

Factually, majority deaths occurring in road accidents are in the range of 18 to 50 years of age who are the breadwinners of the families. Looking at the total numbers of deaths and the plight of families is quite disheartening.

A closer look at the major causes of accidents gives the following statistics, 58% are attributed to human error, 27% towards design and engineering faults, and 12-15% due to vehicles with insufficient safety. The major cause seems to be rash and drunken driving and heavy loaded trucks.

There is a requirement to educate drivers, create adequate rest facilities, install monitoring technology, and create black spot free highways.

To see an improvement in road safety, it is essential that all things are resolved leading to tangible and good results. For any solutions to be implemented it is essential that the solution is accepted and welcomed by the workforce on the ground. Charting out a plan would not lead to transformation on the ground unless an effective implementation is undertaken. A bottom-up approach is likely to provide better results.

Of late, there has been a great change in the way road safety is perceived and significant actions are being taken e.g new Motor Vehicle Act, analysing road engineering, increased conversations around road safety.

Inter-ministerial blocks

Worldwide the road safety measures are driven by the insurance companies. The insurance companies take ownership and provide funding. However, in India the insurance companies do not play an active role in the matter. Further, post an accident there is a requirement of proper trauma centres located nearby and ability of the ambulance to reach the accident site within the golden hour. These help save a life. In India, the insurance companies fall under the wing of the Ministry of Finance and post-accident support is looked at by the Ministry of Health. There are cross ministry efforts involved which has created a need for holistic solutions.

Moving towards safer roads

There are various facets to be considered to improve road safety. To enable targeted problem solving one must look at the cause of accidents along with the cause of deaths and stop looking at the crashes being attributed to one particular cause. The major causes of crashes can be attributed to infrastructure, humans, and vehicles. On the other hand the causes of death are vehicular and engineering default.

Infrastructure

Surveys indicate that the road signages are useful however a deeper analysis shows that as the signs are placed along the sides of the road this hampers the ability of the driver to see the sign. Placing the signages at an accurate location like overhead could help in visibility of the signs. Periodic training for the drivers to ensure they can read the signs is imperative.

Replacing tactile edge lines with tactile shoulder lines could be a smart way to counter the issue faced where the drivers simply drive over the tactile edge lines in a manner such that the line would be between the wheels. The tactile shoulder lines create noise when the car goes onto the shoulder, the discomfort forces the driver to come back on the paved lane.

While arriving at solutions it can also be asked are the roads forgiving? What could help in reducing the causes of death e.g. replace the tree lined along the roads with crash barriers.

Integration of technology driven solutions would significantly help in road safety. Following technology solutions could help in increasing road safety:

  • Use of technology to train drivers and to monitor e.g. AI supported apps that monitor the activeness of the drivers through their eyes in which if the driver is found to be dozing the app would send out a voice that would keep the driver active.

  • There is a requirement to reduce reliance on paper records, using technology in monitoring the road structure will help in quick resolution and rectification.

  • Implementing monitoring mechanisms on the road e.g. enough number of cameras that ensure the rules are followed.

  • Robotizations to decrease the presence of workers on the road e.g. robotic flagman that helps in reducing the cost and reduced the fatality rates by taking the human out of the operation. This aspect is now also included in the new concessions for TOT to implement road safety measures.

  • Setting up CCTVs at identified points and connected to a control room which picks the vulnerable points of the road infrastructure and monitors the accident. This initiative is already being undertaken by MORTH.

  • A pre-emptive measure in the form of drone monitoring the parked vehicles that will issue a warning to the parked vehicles. Use of drones can also help reduce the routine patrolling required on the roads.

Humans

Given the quantum of accidents and deaths occurring due to rash driving, drunken driving, inability of the driver to read and understand the signs, it is essential for the RTO to increase literacy of the driver and create more robust processes of providing licenses. In the other countries, road safety and driving rules are usually taught from a younger age and forms part of the school curriculum. Looking at similar initiatives would help in having better drivers on the road. The Police forces also have a crucial role to play in controlling and monitoring road safety.

Vehicles

The vehicles should be equipped with sufficient safety measures. Often due to the poor condition of specific vehicles the passenger dies due to the car structure collapsing. While analysing the data on accidently, one must also look at the vehicle's details which would help pin point to specific vehicles that have witnessed more deaths in comparison to the others. The automobile companies also have their own jobs to do here.

Engineering

To reduce the causes of deaths, the engineering companies should improve visibility – close gaps in medians, implement new forms of safety (shoulder lines and barriers). All systems of engineering and designing processes should consider human behavior.

IRC codes are available for traffic safety however there are no specific standards available for O&M at the moment. Hopefully we will soon see new IRC codes coming in for the maintenance aspects of road projects.

For any change to be implemented in improving road safety; two approaches are required: a top-down approach to drive policy and framework as well as a bottom up approach such as zero fatality corridor initiatives that are driven by partnership with governments and industry participants. The zero-fatality corridor is achieved through a deep dive on why the crashes are happening in the first place and undertake interventions such as fixing engineering issues, lane related issues, removing causes of collisions, fixing communications on road, etc.

Private sector contribution

Contributions by the private sector to reduce the fatalities has been a nascent journey so far. The private sector’s involvement should be not only in investing but also becoming a stakeholder in road safety.

Enabling the environment for private sector contributions is by having a robust regulatory framework. The cause and mechanisms responsible for crashes aren’t directly bearing the cost of such fatalities, this is a form of a typical market failure that prohibits investment opportunities for the private sector. In the US in the 1960s and 70s, the automobile industry wasn't taking the accountability of the faulty cars and were blaming it on the ‘nut behind the wheel’. The private sector upon realising their investment was getting impacted, took action such as empowering the insurance companies. They saw this as a common goal that their contribution beyond the regulatory standards would garner them greater profits e.g. becoming a watchdog to identify safer cars and driving the consumer to be safer. This proves that there is scope to go beyond what is expected from the company and leads to opportunities for partnerships.

Investment in an ‘as is’ scenario is not going to move the needle much. While there is focus on ESG aspects, a question that arises is whether Road Safety qualifies as an ESG parameter.. ESG funds primarily invest in environmental impacts such as adopting greener technology and do not usually allocate funds for road safety. The International investors look at the performance of ESG factors in India in a manner like the other countries. The number of fatalities and the reduced initiatives cause quite a concern to invest in India. Many have suo-moto started undertaking initiatives along with the public bodies to work towards increasing road safety.

Values given by way of the NHAI ranking provides incentive to companies to see their projects achieve a reputable ranking that does not impact their brand value. This makes a lot of difference. NHAI came with a ranking of over 200 projects of which the first 50 ranking projects were BOT followed by HAM then EPC. This metric shows that a concessionaire that maintains the projects takes better care to ensure safety and lesser lapses. There is change in terms of engagement by the private sector. The private sector will help match the innovation and risk-taking ability required in the sector.

Key sentiments

  • Creating collective sense of responsibility by all stakeholders on the issue.

  • To identify a dedicated revenue stream from the safety model; i.e.tech companies can generate data which insurance companies can use.

  • Scalable initiatives to be implemented by extrapolating local efforts on a national level.

  • Road safety should become community centric in terms of design and thinking. Focus should be on ensuring no fatality rather than number of highways.

  • Roads with black spots should not be allowed to be operational and a time bound approach should be taken to resolve engineering.

  • Emergency trauma care isn't connected with medical and traffic posts and there is no response time parameter. Better trauma care and response time parameters to be implemented.

  • Technology companies are one of the few companies that can make revenue from road safety initiatives by incorporating technology in road safety and data generated can be used by insurance companies for detailed analysis. Private sector to be involved through PPP to carry out enforcement of technology.

  • Project classifications on the basis of road safety to also include minimum accidents and number of death as well as list all the precautions taken by the concessionaire.

  • Imparting technical knowledge on a regular basis. Educating and engaging with communities along corridors. Community to become heavily involved to create a social momentum to improve road safety.

 
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