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Roads to Disaster
Fatal Flaws in Indian Highway Design


he rich 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.

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