India's daily death toll due to road accidents is more than four times the annual death toll from terrorism. As many as 139,671 people lost their lives on India's roads during 2014 - 382 deaths every day. For comparison, the total number of deaths (civilians and security personnel) due to terrorism-related incidents was 83 in all of 2014.
Predictably, most of those who die on the roads perish because of preventable causes: Speeding, drunk driving and overloading. The large number of deaths among pedestrians and cyclists also indicates that any moves to get people to shun motorised transport in favour of these environmentally-friendly modes are not likely to succeed.
After falling for two years, the number of road accident deaths in India rose again during 2014, according to the latest report from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. The majority of these deaths, nearly three-fourths, have been termed as "fault of the driver", a catch-all term that includes speeding, drunk driving, driving on wrong side of the road and not signaling properly.
Here are the five factors that India can address to cut the tide of death:
- Speeding is the single factor responsible for the maximum number of deaths on Indian roads. During 2014, 57,844 deaths - 41 percent of the total - were due to accidents caused by speeding. Speeding has accounted for a similar share in the earlier years as well and has consistently accounted for over 50,000 deaths on roads for the past several years. It is typically the easiest factor to control, and a small reduction in vehicle speed yields disproportionate results in terms of safety.
A pedestrian struck by a car driving at 37 km per hour has an average risk of death of 10 percent, according to a study sponsored by AAA Foundation, a US association dedicated to road safety. This increases exponentially with vehicle speed and rises to 90 percent for higher speeds.
These numbers suggest some big gains can be made with directed effort. India's national and state highways, which together account for less than 5 percent of the road network, accounted for 63 percent the total road deaths during 2014. Speeds on highways are typically higher than speeds within city limits and are often violated because of lax enforcement. Strict enforcement of speed limits on highways could save thousands of lives.
- Overloaded, badly loaded trucks, kill 100 every day. This, particularly trucks, makes it hard to control, especially when they need to brake. However, it is a common practice on Indian highways. Similarly, driving with protruding loads is also a common sight on Indian roads, albeit illegal. These two causes accounted for 36,543 deaths in 2014.
Both of these are preventable causes and have been showing a declining trend for the past few years. Again, since the heavy truck traffic is largely on national and state highways, better monitoring and enforcement can save lives.
- Advances in automotive technology mean that a drunken driver safely belted in can often walk away from an accident. The pedestrians/two-wheelers/smaller vehicles that he/she hits may not be as lucky. Madhya Pradesh and Bihar account for almost a quarter of all deaths due to drunk driving. Among smaller states, Haryana and Uttarakhand have tolls way higher than many larger states.
Traffic police in major cities like Mumbai and Delhi have been conducting sustained campaigns against drunk driving in response to high-profile cases.
- Two-wheelers account for the largest share of vehicles on Indian roads. So, it is not a surprise that they also account for the largest number of fatalities. In 2014, 30 percent of all road deaths were of riders/passengers on two-wheelers, while bicyclists accounted for 3 percent and pedestrians for 9 percent.
Wearing a helmet can reduce the risk of severe injury by 72 percent and the risk of death by 39 percent, according to the World Health Organisation. However, wearing a helmet is mandatory only in a handful of Indian cities, and only for two-wheeler riders, not other passengers.
India's two-wheeler density is a fraction of other middle-income nations, such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The 16,000-plus deaths among pedestrians and cyclists indicate that Indian roads are not very friendly to either of the two most vulnerable road users. Any attempts to clean up city air by urging people to shun cars/bikes and pedal/walk instead are doomed to fail unless pedestrians and cyclists can move around safely without being bullied by larger vehicles. That will require proper pavements and pedestrian crossings, along with some common courtesy.
- India's 50 largest cities accounted for 16,611 road fatalities in 2014, with Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore taking the top three spots. The number of road-accident deaths has fallen in Delhi and Chennai consistently. Monitoring road users and enforcing laws is easier in bigger cities than other areas. The Delhi Metro could also have played a part in making the capital safer.
The mass-transit system ferries more than two million people every day and helps keep vehicles off roads, reducing congestion and accidents.
Mumbai is another standout in terms of road safety: It has fewer road deaths compared to smaller cities like Chennai, Bangalore or Kanpur. This is because Mumbai has fewer vehicles on the roads in proportion to its population, as it has a reasonably efficient, albeit greatly overloaded, mass-transit system.
It is another matter that many more people are killed on railway tracks than on roads in Mumbai due to inadequate safety measures. A recent RTI query reveals that eight people die every day in Mumbai - while crossing railway tracks or because of falling from overcrowded trains.
All this shows that sprucing up the public transport system could play a big role in improving India's urban road safety.
(Amit Bhandari is a media, research and finance professional. In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform.)