The tragic accident of businessman Cyrus Mistry and his fellow passengers in a car crash flooded our newsfeed last week. What followed was a deluge of WhatsApp messages on the importance of driving skills, seat belts and speed limits. Road safety is, however, as much about the design and construction of roads, and post-crash emergency care, as it is about seat belts. This has also been emphasised by the World Health Organization and United Nations in their Global Plan for Road Safety 2021-2030.
India has a National Road Safety Policy and has set up state-wise District Road Safety Committees to review road accidents, their causes and develop safety plans. It passed the Motor Vehicles Amendment Bill in 2019, while the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways also rolled out a State Support Programme of over Rs 7,000 crore for strengthening road safety. Yet, we find ourselves topping the world fatality charts year after year. This is as good a time as any to ask—why are we a failure in road safety?
Depending on who you ask, the diagnosis will range from drunk driving, untrained drivers, casual drivers without seat belts and helmets, culture of speeding (especially by two-wheelers), cattle and people jostling for space on roads to poor quality and bad road design. One would think that there is someone who knows the correct answer, perhaps someone who can tell us the share of each reason for total accidents. We would then know the difference between the causes of accidents on city streets and national highways. We would have also studied the root cause of the problem—is it an issue of enforcement, or an issue of poor land markets that results in people on the street, or government contracting on building better and safer roads?
If governments are planning to spend crores on improving road safety, there is sure to be a strategy based on analysis of past car crashes. The government would estimate the costs of pursuing specific policy interventions and choose the few that give us the most bang for our buck. For example, what would it cost, and what management changes would it take to improve action against drunk driving? What is the process to ensure higher standards before a driving license is issued? What alternative techniques exist to build bends on the roads, or build road dividers that minimise the impact of a crash should it occur? How much do they cost? What changes—if any—are required in procurement policy?
This cost would then be evaluated against the savings that would be made by lowering the number of casualties. The answer would, of course, differ from location to location. We would then evaluate the success of the interventions before pouring more money into specific solutions.
The analysis that governments engage in—assuming they do—before making their decisions is not visible to their citizens. We are also rarely given information on which of the policy interventions worked, at what cost, and how would they scale. There seems to be some progress in Tamil Nadu, where road deaths fell from about 15,000 in 2014 to 10,000 in 2019. But little is known about strategic choices, policy interventions and their outcomes in other parts of the country. And hence, in a nutshell, we don’t truly know why we are a failure in road safety.
Loss of life and limb is devastating to those who find themselves in such unfortunate events. There are larger economic ramifications too. Victims of road accidents are often the young, which leads to income shocks in households and a loss of productive human capital for the economy. A study by the World Bank shows that if India reduced road traffic mortality and injuries by 50 per cent and sustained it for a number of years, we would be able to generate an additional flow of income equal to 14 per cent of our GDP in 2014. Death and disability caused by road accidents are major contributors to poor health outcomes. Increasingly road safety is being seen as a component of international health policy. Prevention is better than cure. By focusing on road safety, we will see a greater impact on health outcomes, which is better than obsessing over health care alone.
Coming back to the Mistry car crash, the district administration in Maharashtra has said there were nine black spots on the Palghar stretch of the highway, and has suggested some short-term measures to provide warnings to slow down cars. The Union Minister for Transport and Highways has also admitted to the design of roads often being faulty and taking actions to improve the curves on the highways as well as identifying black spots. This is a start. A systematic collection of data and policy analysis will go a long way in implementing road safety.
The author is an associate professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP). She tweets @resanering. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)