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Reading between the lines: an analysis of media reports on road accidents - II

In the previous post on how the media (Tamil and English) covers road accidents, we looked at the kind of details provided, and sensationalism in the articles. This post, based on 104 of the 181 Tamil and English media reports that were published between January and April 2016, analyses reportage on the causes of accidents, geography (rural vs urban), and road user behaviour.

Causes of accidents

Generally, newspapers give limited information about the causes of accidents. The standard reasons given, as this article from The Hindu illustrates, are loss of control, carelessness, or speeding. This gels with the data from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) to some extent. Its 2015 report (Road Accidents in India 2015) lists the major cause of accidents to be over-speeding (47.9%).

What the media does not highlight is that these causes are really symptoms of the same problem of disregarding road rules. While loss of control, speeding, etc may be the proximal causes of many an accident, the underlying cause is the negligence of road users or in other words the fault of the driver. The MoRTH report notes that 77.1%t of ‘accidents’ were the fault of drivers.

Source: Road accidents in India 2015, MoRTH

Drunk driving is a cause of accidents that gets highlighted in the media, as does the police’s efforts to curb this problem (including signages exhorting people to not drink and drive). Since drunk driving episodes (and therefore accidents) are likely to increase at certain times (weekends or festivals), many of the anti-drunk driving drives target these time periods. On last New Year's Eve, according to a Times of India article, between midnight and 8am, around 900 accidents were reported in Chennai. Most of them involved two wheelers whose drivers were under the influence. Another article quotes the police as saying that in Chennai 60 spot checks on weekdays and 120 on weekends are set up. This has resulted, they said, in a reduction in drunk driving accidents compared to the previous year. However, the article adds,  a large part of the reduction occurred post the December 2015 floods. If the reduction in drunk driving cases was due to the enforcement drive (which had started more than a year before the floods), the drop in cases should have registered earlier in 2015. While the police and media focus a fair amount of attention on drunk driving, the MoRTH data indicates that drunk driving is a minor issue, being responsible for just 3.3% of traffic accidents in the country. This suggests that many drunk driving accidents are not recorded.

Road design

This is an important cause that very occasionally gets written about in media reports. How many of us, when driving in India, have hit potholes or unmarked speed breakers or encountered a patch of badly-laid road and come close to having an accident? Or perhaps, because of bad road design leading to reduced visibility, you have almost hit another vehicle. These are never listed as reasons for accidents in media reports and therefore none of us think of these important aspects of road safety. Unfortunately, road design, planning, and maintenance have not kept pace with the rapid increase in vehicle numbers. In addition, roads are also dug up for utilities , such as, sewerage, electricity, and telephones as this article illustrates. Often, while work is ongoing, cables and other paraphernalia are left lying on the road, pushing pedestrians off the pavement and posing a risk to all road users.

Age of accident victims

The MoRTH report notes that the age group 15 to 34 account for the largest share of accidents with 54.1%. WHO points out that this is the economically active age group in society and that the burden of prolonged medical expense or death of someone in this age group can drive families into poverty. The media, unfortunately, does not talk about the far-reaching and life-changing impact of road accidents although they do often report the age of the victims. To know more, watch our interview of an accident victim who is confined to a wheelchair.

Traffic regulation enforcement drives

The police regularly try to crack down on two-wheeler riders not wearing a helmet and people who drink and drive. So, we looked at what media coverage these drives got. We were happy to see there was good coverage of these issues and the impact of such drives.

An article from February 2016 quotes the Chennai police saying that compared to 2014, in 2015 fatalities among two-wheeler riders has reduced by nearly 50 per cent while overall fatalities on Chennai’s roads has come down (in the same period) by 20 per cent. The police attribute this reduction to strict enforcement of rules such the rule requiring all two-wheeler drivers to wear a helmet. How far this is true is hard to determine as there is no data on helmet-wearing rates and the 2015 NCRB report is yet to be published. The MoRTH report does not give details by city except to provide the total number of accidents, fatalities and injuries. Anecdotal evidence indicates that during and for a brief while after an enforcement drive, helmet-wearing rates go up but typically drop back down once the enforcement drive stops.

Rural vs. urban      

Generally, newspapers don’t compare rural and urban accident data. Articles don’t always indicate if the accident was in an urban or rural area though clues exist in knowing where the article was filed from.

But when we look at the MoRTH data on road accidents in Tamil Nadu in 2015, rural areas had far more accidents compared to urban areas with 40526 and 28533 accidents respectively. Fatalities too were higher: 9856 to 5786. This seems counter-intuitive; one would expect the cities to fare worse considering the large number of vehicles (and people). So does that mean that rural roads are more dangerous?

High rural deaths could be because many highways (state and national) cut through villages/towns and so residents have to keep crossing the highway for daily life. Being highways the roads see a high volume of fast-moving traffic and chance of a tragic interaction between residents and this fast-moving, heavy traffic is high. In addition, rural areas tend not to have emergency facilities nearby that can respond in a timely manner, or good communications systems, medical infrastructure, etc.

Awareness campaigns

Awareness campaigns are a commonly used tool by everyone - civil society, non-profits, government, and corporate houses. Road Safety Week that fall in January every year is one such standard time for awareness campaigns on road safety to roll out. We took a look at how such public service messages are mentioned in the media. Media, we found, gives equal coverage space to government, automobile companies and nonprofits who conduct road safety awareness campaigns.


Media articles tend to give the bare facts of accidents, rarely reporting on causes of accidents or attempting any in depth look into road safety. While there is a huge lacuna in data, media outlets could delve into the issue of road safety. The lack of data itself could be something to highlight. Other topics could include the need for rehaul of the licensing system, the neglected problem of road design, and the difficulty in getting timely first aid and emergency help because emergency vehicles get snarled in traffic. 


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