Indian's love affair with the car has been rekindled with the
availability of fast modern cars. This has produced demands for
faster highways, but interestingly enough, not safer highways.
A while ago, some persons were killed and others injured
seriously when their car reportedly hit the middle divider on the
Jaipur-Delhi highway and rolled over. This particular crash was
covered widely in the Delhi press because it involved people who are
well-connected. The reports in the papers raised issues about speed
limits and quality of tyres, but not the safety of the roads.
This is interesting, because if the newspaper reports are
correct, then the car probably rolled over because it hit the
curbstones on the edge of the divider. This is what an American road
design manual has to say on curbstones on dividers and medians: "In
general, barrier curbs are not desirable for use on freeways and
other high speed roadways. An out-of-control vehicle may overturn or
become airborne as a result of impacting the curb." It is possible
that if the highway didn't have the dangerous curbstones, these
people may have survived. This is not a new finding and has been
accepted by highway engineers around the world for more than three
decades. Unfortunately, in India, most of our new national highways
are being constructed with this fatal flaw.
This is not the only problem with our highway designs. Many
stretches of the new highways have deep stormwater drains running
along them in the middle or on the sides. Others are on high
embankments without wide enough shoulders or protective guard rails.
There are other stretches where the two lanes in one direction are
at a much higher level than the lanes in the other direction without
protective guard rails in the middle. These elements of road space
function like booby traps killing and maiming motorists if they
stray off the road for any reason.
These concerns are not new. Almost 40 years ago, a television
repairman from New York named Joe Linko, starting in 1963, began a
personal crusade against roadside hazards. He drove around the New
York area taking pictures of hazards he saw along the roads and
contacted influential politicians to do something about them.
Finally, in 1967, Linko showed his photographs to a Congressional
subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Federal Highway Program and
this finally led to federal funds and design guidelines for new
roads and restoration projects on older roads, specifying that
roadsides be clear of potential collision hazards.
Road designs and safety principles have come a long way since.
But not in India. Safety professionals the world over work on the
principle that the cause of a road accident is never very simple and
a combination of circumstances plays a role. The key to safer road
traffic lies in the concept of creating an infrastructure that is
adapted to the limitations of the capacity of an ordinary driver.
Roads and vehicles have to be designed to simplify the tasks of the
road users so that they don't make mistakes, and even if they do,
they should not suffer grievous injury. Such designs are crucial to
prevent errors in traffic and less errors result in less accidents.
Second, the road design itself should discourage the unintended use
of the system and prevent uncertainty among road users. And, third,
the roadside should be forgiving in case a motorist strays off
falling asleep, or experiencing a burst tyre.
The above principles are based on the understanding that
roads are used by ``non-professionals'' as against airspace and
railroads which are used only by trained pilots and engine drivers.
Road users are confronted by surprising situations all the time. It
is impossible to predict all these situations, and it is also
impossible to eliminate all human errors and mistakes through
education, training, information, regulations, police enforcement
and penalising measures. This is why vehicles and roads are being
designed to accommodate the ordinary road user and not only the
ideal driver. Highways, therefore, have to be designed so that if a
vehicle leaves the road for some reason, it should either be guided
into place by a guard rail or allowed to slow down in a ``recovery
area'', like a slightly depressed median with bushes or a wide
shoulder. After all, a mistake while driving should not result in a
death penalty due to faulty road design.
In the last three decades the incidence of traffic crash
fatalities and injuries has been reduced significantly in many
countries around the world. This has been possible because of a
careful analysis and evaluation of the factors associated with these
crashes and implementation of policies resulting from the same. At
present, over 80,000 die annually in road traffic crashes in India,
but we have not been successful in reducing the number of lives lost
and people injured over the last five decades. This will not happen
unless roads are designed to be safe for the kind of traffic present
in India and costs for the same amortised over long periods of time.
These new designs and policies will be possible only if the
government gives much more importance to these issues and
establishes a professional road safety agency. Though the financial
loss to the country due to traffic accidents is estimated at more
than Rs 12,000 crore annually, there is no such agency.
Consequently, there are less than half a dozen road safety
professionals in the whole country and almost no efforts being made
to make travel safer for us.
This kind of knowledge and approach is largely absent among
engineers, planners, and decision-makers in India. It is only when
influential individuals become victims of highway accidents that we
take notice. There are thousands of others who are just fatality
statistics in annual reports.
If the correct design information was not available then this may
be pardonable. Scientists around the world have learned to construct
safer roads because they cared about the thousands of innocent lives
lost every year. It is time we in India demanded the same of our
engineers and policy-makers. The first step in this direction would
be to put a halt to the construction of killer highways. There are
better designs available if anyone took the trouble to look for
them. That would be progress.