The summer of 2020 is a double whammy; even before the heat of summer began we started facing the heat of a different kind, with the spread of Covid-19. Almost all countries have been affected with thousands of lives lost, livelihoods of millions under stress, and economies badly hit.
With lockdowns imposed in many countries, including India, mobility has been affected. After weeks of lockdown, there has been talk of easing restrictions in India. No doubt everyone is eager to get back out to work, to visit family and friends, and go out for relaxation. However, it looks like Covid-19 will have an extended impact on mobility.
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Decrease in road crashes
During the lockdown, collisions and road crashes have plummeted with offices/shops/educational institutions entirely shut and vehicle movement restricted across the country. After the lockdown came into force on 25 March, Chennai Traffic Police has recorded seven fatal road crashes till 5 April, while in the week preceding lockdown between 15 March and 24 March, 26 fatal crashes were recorded. The number of road crashes on highways running through Mumbai dropped by 64% and within Pune city limits, the number of crashes came down by 47% in March 2020 compared to March 2019. Similarly the US has also seen reduction in road crashes with California reporting a 50% reduction in road crashes with traffic volumes reducing by as much as 55% on some highways. Cities in Europe have seen huge reductions in traffic with Paris, Madrid, and Rome seeing more than 95% reduction in traffic compared to the same time last year. This could result in a significant drop in road crashes. Notwithstanding the reduction in road crashes, drivers are seen speeding on the roads thinking that the roads are empty. This is a major hazard for pedestrians crossing the road especially senior citizens, where the intersections lack any pedestrian infrastructure or any traffic calming measures.
Would it be too much to hope that this low number of road crashes will continue once restrictions on mobility are lifted?
Driver safety during the pandemic
You will notice that while the reduction in road crashes is substantial, it was not 100%. Unfortunately, people moving around to buy food seem to think that since the roads are empty, the road rules don’t apply. With the police also busy with the pandemic, there is no one to catch them.
Even in a pandemic, supply of essential commodities has to continue which means cargo vehicles continue to ply the roads. In some cases drivers may be required to work for extended hours. For example in the UK the working hours of drivers have been extended from 9 to 11 hours to those involved in the supply of food and other essential products to supermarkets. While extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, some things cannot be compromised, such as the safety of people including drivers. Drivers working longer hours may be prone to fatigue. In addition, the empty roads may tempt them to drive recklessly. Therefore the risk associated with fatigue while driving must be communicated to the drivers. Continuous discussion on safe driving practices like wearing seat belts, observing speed limits even when the roads are empty, not using cell phone driving must be conveyed to the drivers and this can be checked. Police could also provide refreshments to these drivers and encourage them to take rest when they feel tired, especially during the early morning hours when drivers might doze off at the wheel.
The pandemic will likely impact our laws as well. The new Motor Vehicle Amendment Act (MVAA-2019) had started to take an impact in terms of reduction in road crashes and had brought in some discipline on roads. Under the MVAA, the Central Motor Vehicles Rules have been amended to hike penalties considerably to deter people from violating the road rules. Not all states had accepted this change. States like Tamil Nadu have been quietly ignoring the notification. Now that the government’s attention is on addressing the pandemic and with the economy badly hit with millions of people out of jobs there could be a further delay in implementing the increased penalties as states may fear a backlash from the public.
The government’s revenue and therefore expenditure has been hit. Ministries have been asked to cut expenditure by varying amounts depending on how essential their functioning is. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has been asked to restrict overall expenditure to “within 20% of Budget Estimate (BE) of 2020-21” in the first quarter of the financial year 2020-21. In a typically normal scenario, the ministries are allowed to spend about 25% of their respective BEs in the first quarter, subject to quarterly and monthly plans approved by the finance ministry. The scaling down by five percentage points would result in a 20% cut in expenditure in the first quarter. This may be the tip of the iceberg of what's in store, as deeper expenditure cuts could be in the cards in the subsequent three quarters of the financial year 2020-21. Hence there could be a delay in investments on road infrastructure projects and on road safety improvement works. It remains to be seen whether road safety funds would be distributed this year by the state governments. This could negatively impact the number of road crashes and may result in more lives being lost or injured in road crashes once the lockdown is lifted.
When lockdown is lifted
The Government of India has indicated that there will be a gradual lifting of the lockdown but several protocols will have to be followed. The guidelines of the Home Ministry for the extended lockdown period (till May 17th) allowed operation of buses and bus depots at 50% capacity in green zones. In addition, once the lockdown is lifted fully, the Central Institute of Road Transport (CIRT) has suggested a protocol to be followed in public transit which includes limiting the number of passengers in each bus/train compartment. Putting this in practice will be a huge challenge. Considering the crowded conditions of our buses and trains during peak hour and the fact that most cities in India have not been increasing their fleet strength, such a protocol will involve long waits in the hot sun for commuters who need to get to work on time. In addition, ensuring adequate availability of personal protective equipment for the enforcement officials, thermal screening of passengers, and deployment of additional staff in public areas to ensure social distancing will be a challenge. The government needs to take steps to increase the availability of public transport by co-opting private bus operators, increasing the frequency of trains and number of bogies in trains. The CIRT protocol also suggests encouraging use of non-motorised transport (cycles, walking) and staggering work hours to reduce the load on public transit. The question is how efficiently and effectively can this be done when citizens will be in a rush to get their livelihoods back on track again. Do we have the resources needed to do this and for how long?
Covid-19 and its possible long term impact
If nothing else, Covid-19 has taught us how unprepared we are for a disaster. Crowded public transportation systems in India can potentially spread the virus. As some state governments are taking steps to resume public transportation with 50% seating capacity operationalising them while following protocols (wear mask and gloves, maintaining hygiene and social distancing) is going to be a huge challenge. Educational institutions cannot be closed for long. Schools and colleges could be operated on staggered timings especially in urban areas. Online classes can also be done especially by private schools but government schools need to be open while ensuring personal hygiene at the premises. Similarly, public places like malls and cinema houses should be considered for opening up as they are businesses that provide employment to people.
In the long term with the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning that the Coronavirus may not go away for a few years, authorities in Europe are strengthening active modes of transportation like cycling by introducing cycle lanes. City Corporations/ town municipalities in India can also give fresh impetus to policies that promote non-motorised transportation. The situation is evolving and nobody knows clearly what the long term implications could be to the transport sector. If we are to recover from this crisis and be able to tackle the next crisis that comes (whether it is a flood or a tsunami or a pandemic), we need to work towards a more sustainable direction.