The Path to Safety – The Hindu

The responsibility for disciplining traffic on the roads lies as much with the citizens as with the government

The responsibility for disciplining traffic on the roads lies as much with the citizens as with the government

Road safety is a universal concern. We are all road users. Yet he barely captures our attention, except when it comes to a celebrity hit-and-run case. The statistics are startling. Each year, Indian megacities witness nearly 50,000 accidents. A quarter of them are fatal. More than half of them are due to speeding and a quarter to dangerous driving. Nearly half of those who lose their lives are pedestrians. Nearly half of these preventable deaths are due to collisions with buses and trucks. The burden of death is borne by the young. The opportunity cost of lost human lives is immense.

Lessons from trials

In the case of New Delhi, road deaths peaked in 2009. Since then, they have gradually declined despite the increasing number of vehicles. This improvement is due to the Delhi Police’s commendable interventions on black spots, traffic calming measures and enhanced law enforcement. The Delhi government has now launched a campaign to enforce discipline in the lanes, starting with strict compliance in the bus lane. This required a reorientation of the approach to all road users. The buses, like the big tyrants, had hitherto had free rein. From now on, deviations from the path lead to severe penalties. The trials of the past month have taught several lessons.

First, it would be useful to look at the skills of Indian drivers. A learner’s permit, issued after a test of basic understanding of road signs and traffic rules, is the first requirement. A driving skill test confirms the driver’s ability to operate the steering wheel. A sense of entitlement, especially among the elite, drives them to seek shortcuts. Going to a test track is considered an infra dig. A word with a friendly official helps, or in some cases the unscrupulous tout springs into action. Delhi now has automated driving test centers, which has reduced the scope for human intervention. Consequently, the failure rates (around 40%) are much higher than in other cities. Even so, a simple skill test does not give a person the etiquette of driving – stick to the lane; signal while turning; maintain speed and traffic lights; and respecting pedestrian rights, overtaking standards and parking rules. The gap between a test in a lab environment and the real thing leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps an additional stage of mandatory simulator testing and psychological assessment could be built into the regulatory framework – even more so for drivers of heavy transport vehicles.

The second aspect is the ability of road design to adapt equally to all users. Buses must stay in their lanes and stop at designated bus stops. This would require free passage in the bus-only lane, which people tend to clutter by parking their vehicles or peddlers use for booming sales. Auto rickshaws and taxis encroach on the bus shelter, soliciting passengers on their way home. Clearly, our roads must create spaces for all users — pedestrians/cyclists, buses, other vehicles — and designate pick-up and drop-off points for taxis and rickshaws. This involves reshaping our roads with intuitive road designs and signs, which delineate different areas of road use. A pilot section has been redesigned in collaboration with IIT Delhi.

Traffic discipline enforcement involves several agencies – the road owner agency, the municipal body, the traffic police and the transport enforcement wing. Most drivers stick to the lane unless forced to do so by obstacles, given the deterrent of heavy penalties. Users of private vehicles must also follow these rules. Similarly, the speed cameras installed by the traffic police in the city, with the automatic number plate recognition system, have seen a spike in the number of challans and a slowdown in vehicles in the city. Technological tools and the deployment of artificial intelligence would introduce the necessary deterrence for traffic violations.

Use public transportation

People’s propensity to use personal vehicles instead of public transport also adds to the chaos. This is partly due to the need to improve the efficiency of public transport, but partly due to personal choices. Delhi has the highest number of personal vehicle registrations per capita – nearly 110 cars per 1,000 people, compared to a national average of 25. At some level, there is a need to introduce mobility solutions as service (MaaS), which integrate all public mobility options on a common digital platform. A commuter could then choose to hop on a bus, subway, taxi, or car. A government-backed digital aggregator of all mobility options would make public transport more efficient and provide integrated solutions for last and first mile connectivity.

Disciplining traffic on the roads is a gigantic exercise in collective behavior change. The responsibility for change lies as much with citizens as with government.

Ashish Kundra is Principal Secretary for Transport in the Government of Delhi. Views are personal

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