The ugly side of India’s automotive boom

India tops the global list of deaths in road accidents with around 1.25 lakh people dying every year as a result of accidents while another 22 lakh suffer serious injuries often leading to physical impairment for life.

While the menace has assumed giant proportions all over the world, it is the emerging and least developed economies including India that account for 90% of deaths while cornering only about half of world’s registered fleet. Is it high time we stop tom tomming our increasing stature in the world’s automotive space and start doing something to make our roads safer?

This does not come as a major surprise to me, and I am sure not many people would jump out of their seats by the statistics. A little over 10% of all deaths due to road accidents in the world happen in India, which now has an unenviable distinction of recording 15 deaths per hour. That is akin to a jumbo jet crashing every day and ending the lives of 342 people with it.

What is a matter of concern maybe is that very little is being done to resurrect this. All stakeholders in the game of mobility are lax in this regard. The respective government departments do not have the time and is too busy with god knows what. Automobile companies, beyond the mandatory safety regulations, do not care and are more concerned with how to see more of their vehicles and make more profits. And the end users –us– are at the maximum scared for our safety but do not have a choice or a voice to do anything about this. All three are equally guilty.

The government

The lacunae in our infrastructure is one reason for the high number of road accidents but that is not the biggest one. Bad policing and law enforcement on the roads lead to more deaths and road rage than potholes and non existing roads. Beyond the four metros, there is no traffic constable to be seen in majority of intersections and hardly anybody gets a challan for not wearing a helmet or a seat belt. Overloading in trucks is rampant even in some of the major towns and traffic lights are treated as show pieces, either because they don’t work or it does not matter. In most cases, there are no traffic lights in the first place.

Despite being one of the fastest growing automobile markets, India is not the biggest either in 2,3 or 4 wheelers. The vehicle population in US, China, Japan and Germany is way more than India’s but even then they are not as big culprits. The reason, along with a robust infrastructure and road conditions, is better law enforcement. It is not rare to get stuck in long traffic jams even on highways in these countries, but nobody tries to change lanes unnecessarily or jump a red light to save time because doing that attracts heavy penalty with no exceptions.

The Industry

While the roads are one of the most dangerous, Indian cars are also one of the least safe. Unlike in the West, which regularly keeps upgrading its safety features often not even waiting for regulations to force them, Indian companies resist stricter laws. The country has still not mandated crash safety tests as companies have been reluctant to adopt it. Similarly, many cars, especially small, do not even have some safety features like Anti lock braking system and airbags, as optional features.

Carmakers say that variants that include ABS and Airbags are not that popular in a price sensitive market like ours. While there is some truth in it, one cannot help but feel that this is being used as a convenient excuse to remain passive. In the West, companies routinely innovate and add features as a means to differentiate their cars from the rest and use it as a USP. The advanced research on pedestrian safety features in cars is a case in point. In India, the industry could not care less.

The consumers

We can blame the government and the industry for not doing enough, but cannot shy away from the fact that the public at large is not anymore sensitive. The public at large is ignorant about how to drive or ride a vehicle and those who are, are mostly irreverent towards them. Lane driving is considered to be for the aliens, and honking mostly without provocation is a national favourite pastime. Many of us including well educated scientifically oriented blokes, disobey some very obvious rules like jumping red lights or breaking speed limits, intentionally as if these were not meant for us. A lot many of us get away with it either because nobody catches us or we are lucky that mishap befalls a poor pedestrian, but with each passing day, we only get more emboldened and take out luck for granted.

That is not to say that pedestrians are any better. While there are only limited zebra crossings and subways or foot over bridges for those on foot, we are too lazy or simply careless to use them wherever they are. It is not rare to find people jay walking in the middle of the road while staring straight at a incoming vehicle as if daring the machine to trample them. Such dare devilry often results in tragedy but unfortunately, the dead do not have the liberty to regret. While on the road, they only become a statistic.

Whats the big deal?

* Nearly 1.3 million people are killed on the world’s roads each year.
* Up to 50 million people are injured, and many remain disabled for life.
* 90% of casualties from road deaths occur in developing countries.
* Annual road traffic deaths are forecast to rise to 1.9 million people by 2020.
* Road traffic injuries are the number one cause of death for young people worldwide.
* By 2015 road traffic injuries will be the leading health burden for children over the age of five years in developing countries.
* The economic cost to developing countries is at least $100 billion a year.
* Road traffic injuries place an immense burden on hospitals and health systems generally.
* Road crashes are preventable.

Why should we bother?

* India tops the list of road accidents accounting for 10% in the world. 1.25 lakh die every year and 22 lakh are greviously injured.
* Road accidents cause a 3% loss to the Gross Domestic Product every year or roughly Rs 75,000 crore.
* Every hour 15 people in India die on the road, equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every day.

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