On Indian roads, progress takes a deadly toll

Taken from international herald tribune.

By Rina Chandran Reuters

Published: August 28, 2008

MUMBAI: The twisted metal of smashed cars lining highways here is a grim testament to India’s road toll, one of the worst in the world with about 100,000 people killed in traffic accidents last year.

As incomes rise and the economy rapidly expands, new cars and trucks pour onto Indian roads at an ever-increasing pace, squeezing into narrow, congested streets that were never designed for such a massive flow of traffic. Creaking infrastructure, poorly trained drivers and cars that lack basic safety features because of a preference for cheap, fuel-efficient vehicles are causing an already horrendous road toll to balloon.

And the toll is not just human. The World Bank estimates that every year road accidents cost India about 3 percent of its gross domestic product, which was more than $1 trillion in 2007.

“We’re talking about a very serious issue here that also has huge economic implications,” said Rajesh Rohatgi, a transport specialist with the World Bank in New Delhi.

Road accidents could become one of the biggest public health issues in India. The World Bank forecasts that by 2020, the death toll on roads will overtake deadly diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS.

In India, where roads carry almost 90 percent of all passenger traffic and 65 percent of all freight, the mortality rate is 14 per 10,000 vehicles compared with less than two per 10,000 vehicles in developed countries, the World Bank said.

It is easy to see why: Cars and motorbikes, many with four riders astride, share space on narrow roads with bicycles, three-wheeled rickshaws, trucks, buses, the odd bullock cart and pedestrians forced to walk on roads because of hawkers on sidewalks.

With few Indian cities enforcing basic requirements like seat belts, it is not unusual to see children sitting in the laps of adults in front seats, and overloaded buses with people balanced precariously on the steps or perched on the roofs.

Pot-holed roads, inadequate safety regulations, a lenient license system and a lax attitude toward drunk and underage driving are all blamed for accidents that kill an estimated 275 people every day.

But the biggest killer is arguably the growing numbers of vehicles using Indian roads that are incapable of supporting the massive volume of traffic, steered by drivers who lack basic skills.

It is a problem that is being seen in other developing countries with booming economies that are making cars affordable to the masses.

The World Bank estimates that the number of deaths from car accidents globally will rise to two million per year by 2020 from just over half that figure now unless more people are taught driving skills and road laws are better enforced.

The Indian Transport Ministry estimates that the number of annual fatalities from road accidents might climb to 150,000 by 2015 because of the rapid growth of vehicle ownership in India.

Annual sales of passenger vehicles in India are expected to nearly double to two million units by 2010 and sales of commercial vehicles could more than double to one million units.

Vehicle ownership has risen at an average rate of about 15 percent a year over the last decade, but road maintenance is underfunded, with only about a third of road needs being met.

“Unfortunately, we have no policy framework, and there are so many agencies involved with very little coordination between them,” said Rohatgi, of the World Bank. “Blame must be shared equally at the institutional level, the engineering level and the consumer level.”

The government plans to spend more than $500 billion over the next five years to upgrade its roads, ports, airports and other creaky and inadequate infrastructure. But often, not all the money that is earmarked for a project actually gets there due to corruption and poor governance. The result is substandard construction and poor road maintenance.

While loopholes in the system put licenses in the hands of those ill-equipped to drive, there is also a general apathy among consumers toward seat belts, air bags and motorcycle helmets.

“Safety is unfortunately not a big part of the purchase decision of Indian consumers,” said Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of the Autocar magazine.

“Our best-selling small cars are typically not the safest vehicles on the road, because consumers are more worried about fuel efficiency and the cost of ownership, and would rather not pay for safety features such as air bags and anti-lock brakes.”

Vehicle makers are trying to fill the breach left by the government by setting up driver training schools.

“We do believe the need for training is becoming increasingly relevant due to the increase in vehicle volumes, high speed roads, enhanced performance of vehicles, and the requirement of specific skills for application vehicles,” said Debasis Ray, head of corporate communications at Tata Motors, the leading vehicle manufacturer in India.

The top passenger car maker in the country, Maruti Suzuki India, manages two training schools in Delhi with the state transport department. It has evaluated more than 400,000 clients, mostly commercial vehicle drivers, a spokesman said. It also runs about 35 driving schools along with its dealers and is setting up more.

Ford Motor is customizing its U.S.-based, teen-focused Driving Skills for Life program for drivers in developing auto markets including Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Hyundai Motor of South Korea has a student traffic volunteers scheme in New Delhi and Madras, while Tata Motors trains commercial vehicle drivers.

Courses for truck drivers are seen as particularly crucial, as a lack of trained heavy vehicle drivers may be holding back business activity in India by hampering the transport of goods across the vast country.

“As more cars are sold, there is a demand for more drivers,” said Mohit Arora, managing director for India at J.D. Power Asia-Pacific. “Transporters also want drivers for commercial vehicles, where the need for training is perhaps most acute.

“Tata has struggled with the fact that during the boom there weren’t enough experienced drivers, which can actually dent demand for trucks,” he said.

2 Comments

Filed under Traffic Safety

2 responses to “On Indian roads, progress takes a deadly toll

  1. Its true in the developing country like India progress of roads takes a deadly toll. Government is responsible for it. On the time of elections they take care of roads else rest of the days he is very careless on such matters.
    ———————
    Rose

    Blazeinfotech

  2. rizkibeo

    #Rose, thank you for your comment..

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