So, what makes a journey safe? Better drives or better roads? We all can agree that India’s road safety record needs to improve, but how are we going to go about it stays a matter of debate. Some road users may be convinced that our roads need to enhance, some say unblinkingly that accidents are caused by dangerous road user behaviour. Looking back in time, the responsibility of having safer roads has been placed by a significant proportion on road user behaviour.
For years, Indian roads paid bare attention to mobility or safety, this changed along with the overhaul of the Indian economy these past few years and growing awareness that mobility is essential to economic growth. This was followed by rapid construction of Indian road systems. In 2021, construction of national highways reached an all-time high of 40kms per day, with the target at 50kms per day in 2022 and increasing the budget for highways by 30 per cent. India appears to hold one standard- mobility at any cost. It is also exigent that Indian roads are death traps with only 1% of world’s vehicles but 11% of the global deaths from road accidents.
What norms have been set in place to ensure that this fleet-footed expansion does not worsen an already stressed system? Once you understand the importance of road infrastructure and the fact that the manual of specifications and standards exists for a reason, the accountability is put in its rightful place whether it’s the highway department or road users.
The ‘safe system’ modus operandi to improving road infrastructure
Inspired from Sweden’s Vision Zero and the Netherlands' Sustainable Safety policies, the ‘Safe System’ can be summarised by its one exposition; every human life is unique and irreplaceable. With the aim to construct a more tolerant road system that takes human fallibility and susceptibility into account. In simple terms, it acknowledges that even under perfect conditions, road users are prone to error. Errors that result in putting enormous mechanical pressure on the human body, which can kill or hurt it.
The long-established view of road crashes is that the road user is ultimately responsible, that the road user’s behaviour can be altered and, in this change, lies our ability to reduce road fatalities. But even if users complied with all road rules, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be human error or fatalities. It can be safely concluded that routine human error leading to crashes, rather than intentional or unintended breaking of rules, is essentially an aspect of human existence and road use.
Building a safe system
In order to build a Safe System, road and road-side infrastructure is elemental. Roads require to be predictable; the design must be such that a road user is able to judge the speed which is safe for that stretch visually. In case there occurs a judgement error, the road and roadside need to be built in a way that that additional kinetic energy generated does not adversely affect the people on the road. Various tested and proved road infrastructure mechanisms are available to create safer roads, some examples:
Additional Lane: Road crashes commonly occur when vehicles attempt to overtake a slower vehicle. In remote rural roads or hilly terrains, adding an additional lane across the entire length of the road, can be expensive. Whereas, passing places, where one vehicle can pull over and let the other pass, known as a crawler lane, can be used to accommodate vehicles moving at different speeds.
Bicycle lanes: Preserving a domain for non-motorised cyclists, from residential areas to school and nearby market areas keeps the user safe. This additionally also helps improve congestion on the roads.
Painted central medians: For those who need to turn their vehicles, can wait here until there is a gap in oncoming traffic.
Delineation: Central and edge delineation helps drivers judge their positions on the road, or when the road is too narrow to accommodate their vehicle because of oncoming or overtaking traffic. This is especially helpful under difficult driving conditions. Delineation at intersections is in particularly helpful, giving traffic a stop line to aim for and stay behind. It also makes the right of way clear at intersections.
Intersection-grade separation: Grade separations help to separate conflicting intersection movements. This is particularly needed in our newly laid highways which cut across existing communities. The highway can be laid as an overpass allowing routine traffic to continue at a lower level. Generally expecting pedestrians to use overpasses is unhelpful as they prefer to walk the shortest distance possible, even if it means walking through dangerous traffic.
Median barriers: Median barriers separate opposing traffic streams. They also limit turning options for vehicles, moving them to a few, selected locations. They also function as safety barriers and should absorb extra energy from a crashing vehicle and redirect it back into the road.
Parking improvements: Inappropriate parking of vehicles is a significant hazard for moving vehicles and can be the cause of many crashes. A badly parked vehicle can reduce visibility for a driver or can bring a lane of traffic to a sudden halt. Busy urban areas either need parking provisions marked out or parking bans in place.
Pedestrian footpaths: Both urban and rural roads need footpaths, a necessity. An adequately maintained footpath can save many lives.
Pedestrian fencing: Can be used to stop pedestrians from crossing at a dangerous location. However, if the fencing is too restrictive, pedestrians will still choose to cross dangerously.
Regulate roadside commercial activity: Stalls and street vendors can be the cause of poor visibility and road crashes. Sellers should be educated and moved to appropriate. vending zones, set-up as defined under the Street Vendors Act, 2014.
Hazard Removal: Roadside hazards can include trees, electricity poles or street lights, drains etc. Either the hazard needs to be removed or a fence placed between the road and the hazard.
Rumble strips: Can be used along edges of the road or medially. They are useful to alerting a fatigued driver. When placed centrally, they can prevent dangerous overtaking, avoiding head-on crashes.
Speed management: Speed management is key to controlling road user behaviour. Speed cameras, speed bumps, roundabouts and road narrowing can be used to help slow vehicles down.
Service Roads: Service roads run parallel to main roads and allow local traffic to gain access to the nearby property without accessing high-speed roads.
Street lighting: Essential for the safety of pedestrians and motorised vehicles. Especially needed at intersections and where speed changes are required of the driver.
Accountability needs to be built into our system, essentially in a way that holds road authorities’ responsible for deadly flaws within it. It doesn’t mean that we completely ignore India’s particular problem with non-compliance. Rather, while improving road user non-compliance, we can also create a Safe System. Where the safety features built into the road infrastructure keeps road users safe, after all the victims of road accidents are often not the ones that are breaking the rules.