What makes a journey safe - better drivers or better roads? While we are agreed that India’s road safety record needs to improve, how we are going to go about it remains a matter of some debate. While most road users are convinced it is our roads which need improving, the powers that be would reply unblinkingly that accidents are caused by dangerous road user behaviour. Historically, the onus for safer roads has been placed to a significant proportion on road user behaviour.

For decades, Indian roads paid scant attention to mobility or safety. This changed with the overhaul of the Indian economy in recent years and a growing awareness that mobility was key to economic growth. What followed was a rapid construction of Indian road systems. In April 2018, construction of national highways reached an all-time high of 28 kms a day. The target is 40 kms a day in the next year. We currently appear to hold one standard – mobility at any cost. Indian roads are death traps with 17 lives lost on Indian roads each hour.

What standards have been set in place to ensure that this rapid expansion does not worsen an already stressed system? While there exists a Manual of Specifications and Standards developed by the Indian Road Congress, these appear to be treated as optional rather than absolute. An absence of road safety audits means that accountability is low for the Highways department but high for the road user.

The Safe System Approach to improving road infrastructure

The safe system approach is based on Sweden’s Vision Zero and the Dutch, Sustainable Safety policies. It can be summarised by its one rationale: every human life is unique and irreplaceable.

The aim is to construct a more forgiving road system that takes human fallibility and vulnerability into account. In other words, it acknowledges that even under perfect conditions, human road users are prone to error; these errors can result in exerting enormous mechanical pressures on the human body, which can kill or maim it.

The traditional view of road crashes is that the road user is ultimately responsible, that the road user’s behaviour can be changed and in this change lies our ability to reduce road fatalities. Elvik and Vaa (2004) indicate that, even if all road users complied with all road rules, fatalities would only fall by around 60% and injuries by 40%. Specifically, they note that around 37% of fatalities and 63% of serious injuries do not involve non-compliance with road rules. This indicates that routine human error leading to crashes, rather than the deliberate or unintentional breaking of road rules, is a feature of human existence and road use.

Building a Safe System

To build a Safe System, road and roadside infrastructure is key. Roads need to be predictable. The design of a road must be such that a road user is able to judge the speed which is safe for that stretch visually. In case of judgement error, the road and the roadside need to be forgiving that the additional kinetic energy generated does not adversely affect the people on the road. Several tested and proved road infrastructure mechanisms are available to create safer roads. Here are some examples of it:

Additional Lane: Road crashes are common when vehicles attempt to overtake a slower vehicle. In case of low volume of traffic, for example up hilly terrains and in remote rural roads adding an additional lane across the entire length of the road can be expensive. However, passing places, where one vehicle can pull over and let the other pass, crawler lane, where a slow-moving vehicle can pull over to let the faster vehicles pass can be used to accommodate vehicles travelling at different speeds.

 

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Pic 1: An additional lane which allows slower vehicles to be overtaken safely. Image courtesy: Road Safety Toolkit, iRAP

 

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Pic 2: An additional lane might have prevented the KSRTC bus from overtaking the slow lorry in such a dangerous fashion, forcing oncoming traffic off the road. Image Courtesy: aanavandi.com

Bicycle lanes: Mixing motorised and non-motorised traffic is unsafe. Additionally, as the risks become apparent to road users, bicyclists are likely to give up using bikes and seek motorised transport for themselves, worsening congestion on the road. Preserving a domain for bicyclists, from residential areas to schools and shopping areas keeps the user safe.

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Pic 3: A striated road system in New York with designated space for pedestrians, designated space for cyclists and designated space for motorists. Image courtesy: inhabitat.com

 

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Pic 4: Mixed road traffic makes non-motorised traffic particularly vulnerable. Image courtesy: ITDP India

Central hatching: Central hatching narrows wide single carriageways, separates oncoming traffic. The impression of narrowness it creates on the road, slows down traffic. Adding a pedestrian refuge in the central hatching breaks the journey for a pedestrian attempting to cross the road.

 

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Pic 5: Central hatching to narrow the road and restrict overtaking. Image courtesy: Road Safety Toolkit, iRAP.

 

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Pic 6: No road marking on a very wide road. Road users will be unsure of what position to take on the road allowing dangerous overtaking.

Painted central medians: For vehicles needing to turn. They can wait here until there is a gap in oncoming traffic.

 

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Pic 7: Example of a central turning lane. Image courtesy, Road Safety Toolkit, iRAP

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 particular 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.

 

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Pic 8:  An example of grade separation using a flyover, in Mumbai. Image Courtesy: DNA India

 

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Pic 9: Another example of grade separation which does not work. Pedestrians will choose the easiest journey and this overpass for pedestrians attracts few users in Chennai. Image Courtesy: Live Chennai

Median barriers: Median barriers separate opposing traffic streams. They also limit turning options for vehicles, moving them to a few, selected locations. However, if barriers on busy road systems used by pedestrians do not allow enough turning/crossing options, pedestrians are likely to make dangerous choices about where to cross the road. Median barriers should also function as safety barriers and should absorb extra energy from a crashing vehicle and redirect it back into the road.

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Pic 10: Using loose stones as medians is not effective as motorists move them at will to create turning places. Image Courtesy: The Hindu

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.

Pedestrian footpaths: Both urban and rural roads need footpaths, a basic necessity. An adequately maintained footpath can save many lives.

 

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Pic 11: An example of an adequate footpath (New Delhi) which is still not used by pedestrians. Are we conditioned in India to walk alongside traffic? Image Courtesy: Road Safety Toolkit, iRAP

 

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Pic 12: A badly damaged footpath which therefore cannot be used by pedestrians. Image Courtesy: The Hindu

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.

 

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Pic 13: Unauthorised roadside shops can be serious hazards to road safety. Image Courtesy: Pinterest

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.

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Pic 14: These yellow metal barriers particularly popular on national highways are serious hazards as they allow no view of oncoming traffic. They are mostly used in turning places; and when used like this, seriously affect visibility.

 

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Pic 15: Two lanes suddenly becoming one is an unexpected hazard when vehicles are moving at speed.

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.

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Pic 16: An unmarked speed bump such as this is a hazard more than a speed management feature. Regulations exist for speed breakers but only rarely adhered to. Image Courtesy: Pune365

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.

While there are multiple low-cost approaches to build road safety, as a nation we first need to adopt a ‘Safe System’ thinking to solving our catastrophic road safety problems. While in the traditional approach, road authorities have striven to specify desired mobility (travel speeds) while doing what they can to improve safety on a length of road (“You can travel from A to B at 100 km/h and we will make some improvements to this two lane two way rural road to improve your travel safety”), in the safe system thinking, they aim to achieve safe travel by determining the travel speed which can be adopted without risk of death or serious injury on a length of road. (“You can travel at this safe speed from A to B based on the safe system elements which are operating and which will avoid fatal and serious injury in the event of a crash. You can only travel faster if infrastructure safety is improved”).

An outstanding example that mobility and speed at the cost of safety is still the prevalent attitude in India, is apparent in the following quote from a road building authority (GHMC, Hyderabad) on why pedestrian footpaths had been cut at the cost of widening roads. “We were forced to reduce the space for footpaths as the vehicular traffic has increased. In certain high-density corridors, we cannot afford slowdown of traffic and that’s the reason we had to widen roads at the cost of footpaths”.

Accountability needs to be built into the system, especially in a manner that holds road authorities responsible for fatal flaws within it. This does not mean that we ignore India’s particular problem with non compliance. Rather that, while solving road user non compliance, we also create a Safe System. In a Safe System, the safety features built into the road infrastructure keep road users safe. It’s especially pertinent in the absence of safe road users; for after all, the victims of road crashes are often not the ones that are breaking the rules.