In 2014, Tamil Nadu had the highest number of road accidents in the country and the highest number of deaths. Media reports invariably say that Indian roads are considered some of most dangerous in the world. Considering all these alarming stories on the low level of road safety in India, I thought it would be interesting to look at how public opinion is shaped on the issue of road accidents and road safety. I looked at 204 print media articles on road safety in Tamil Nadu, in English and Tamil, that were published between October and December 2015. As I read these stories, some patterns became apparent to me.

Coverage

I was interested to see if there was any difference in coverage between Tamil and English media; do English papers cover city accidents more or do Tamil papers have better coverage of rural accidents? Of the 204 articles, 100 articles referred to incidents that were covered in both English and Tamil. While the information was almost identical, sometimes the same news would be given different angles or perspectives. For instance, the incident of a woman who fell down a manhole and died was covered in different papers (Tamil and English) with different reasons given for her death. One article said that she had committed suicide while another article said it was an unfortunate incident that occurred because the manhole was left open to allow for drainage of rainwater and the opening was hidden from view by the water.

Lack of information

In general, I found that the articles gave basic details about road accidents but no in-depth information. For example, they would mention the number of deaths and injuries, what vehicles were involved, and where and when the accident occurred. Often the name and age of the victims would also be given. Only occasionally the report would give a cause for the accident. These were typically things like ‘loss of control’ or ‘reckless driving’. But ‘loss of control’ seems a rather vague concept. Loss of control could be because the driver fell asleep at the wheel, or he was distracted as he was on the phone, or perhaps the brakes were faulty, or any number of reasons. Loss of control does not indicate who was at fault or even what exactly happened. Of course, such information presumably comes to light after the police have conducted their investigation and hence cannot always be covered by the papers. However, the articles leave one with the feeling that this nebulous ‘loss of control’ is a valid cause of accidents. Most accidents occur because of driver negligence. That is not obvious on reading newspaper reports.

Image 1: Word cloud of newspaper article headlines on road accidents
Image 1: Word cloud of newspaper article headlines on road accidents

There was also a marked difference in coverage of rural and urban accidents, with more details about the causes of accidents reported in the rural cases.

Differences in editions

Interestingly, coverage of related topics, such as road design, infrastructure, road improvements, awareness and training programmes on road safety was limited to the Delhi and Mumbai editions of the major English dailies. I wonder why such news are not covered in other editions. For example, the Mumbai and Delhi editions talk mostly about the construction of roads, budget allocations for road projects such as extension/widening of highways, etc, but these are issues that are relevant to all other cities in the country.  Yet, these topics are not covered in other regional editions.

Sensationalism

Tamil papers tend to sensationalise headlines, make them eye-catching and attention-grabbing compared to English papers. For example, an incident reported in a Tamil paper screams, “மெரினா கடற்கரயில் இன்று: ஆட்டோ டிரைவர், பெண் பயணி  பலி! பஸ் மோதி விபத்து!!” which translates to, “Today on the Marina beach: Auto driver, woman passenger die! Accident due to bus crash!!” while the English paper states sedately, minus all the exclamation marks, “Bus rams auto; 2 dead”. Other pieces of information that headlines typically provide are the accident location (especially if it’s a well known place) and the number of deaths, presumably to make the article interesting enough for readers to read. It goes without saying that the location of the article in the paper also indicates its importance; particularly gruesome accidents, with a high death toll will make it to the front page, otherwise accident reports are shunted to the relevant city or state page.

Floods versus Accidents

With the floods in November and December 2015 being on everyone’s mind, it was interesting to note that some articles highlighted the fact that 38 fatalities took place on Chennai’s roads in November 2015 compared to the 72 fatalities in November 2014. Articles speculated that this drop in fatalities could be due to fewer people venturing out and an overall reduction in traffic because of the heavy rains. This was bolstered by the fact that the 38 fatalities occurred in the first 10 days of November 2015, before the torrential downpour.

Unfortunately, other kinds of accidents became more common; open manholes posed a big threat, becoming death traps in the heavy rains. With roads inundated, these open manholes are hidden from view, increasing the chances of people falling in. A November 30th report in the Times of India notes that the decomposed body of a woman was recovered from a sewage pipe in West Mambalam in Chennai.