The Union government has recently announced its plan to introduce a Bill to increase speed limits on Indian roads to 140 km per hour on expressways, 100 km per hour on national highways and 75 km per hour on city roads.

This announcement contrasts with what is widely known as a fact – higher speeds increase the likelihood of crashes. Road traffic crashes are defined as collisions or incidents that may or may not lead to injury, occurring on a public road involving at least one moving vehicle.

Road traffic fatalities are defined as deaths occurring within 30 days as a result of the crash. According to the World Health Organisation, every 1% increase in mean speed results in a 4%-5% increase in fatal crash risk.

Globally, approximately 13.5 lakh people lose their lives due to road traffic crashes every year. India is no stranger to this epidemic. With a 58.7% increase in road traffic fatalities between 1990 and 2017, India has the worst road safety record in the world. Every hour, 16 people die and 53 are injured on Indian roads. This is alarming since India accounts for only 2% of the global motor vehicle, and yet is responsible for 11% of all road traffic deaths.

Speeding initiates crashes

Speeding initiates deadly crashes – the faster a vehicle travels, the greater is the likelihood of impact and the higher the severity of the consequences of the crash. Speeding can cause a driver to lose control of the vehicle, fail to anticipate oncoming hazards in time and even cause other road users to misjudge the distance and speed of the vehicle.

Furthermore, the time taken to stop the vehicle is also greater at high speeds. A vehicle travelling at 50 km per hour takes 28 meters to stop, whereas a vehicle driven at 90 km per hour takes 70 meters to stop.

Snapshot of the Road Accidents Dashboard, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, 2018.

The 2018 “Road Accidents Dashboard” of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways also identified speeding as the primary cause behind road crashes in India. In 2019, speeding accounted for 71.1% of total crashes and 67.3% of total fatalities, marking an increase from the previous year.

Crashes and fatalities attributed to speeding have been on the rise since 2014. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, between 2014 to 2019, the share of road traffic fatalities in India attributed to speeding rose from 34% to 56%, almost twice that of high-income countries (30%) and slightly more than low and middle-income countries (at 50% of all road traffic fatalities).

Even during the nationwide lockdown in 2020, with stringent restrictions in place, India recorded 600 road crashes and 143 fatalities – 57% of which were attributed to speeding. In the face of such evidence, considerations to increase speed limits must be re-evaluated.

Commitment to safety

India is a signatory to the Stockholm Declaration of 2020 and has also committed to achieving zero fatalities by 2030. This cannot be realised without a comprehensive approach to managing speeds on city, state and national roads. Data suggests that even a 5% reduction in average speeds can reduce fatal crashes by 30%.

Resolution 11 of the 2020 declaration focuses on speed management, making it mandatory for member countries to adopt speed limits of 30 km per hour on city roads. Besides, the likelihood of survival of road crash victims is far higher at slower speeds, particularly for vulnerable road users. Pedestrians have an 87% chance of surviving an impact at 30 km per hour, 27% at 65 km per hour and almost zero at 80 km per hour.

Source: Low Speed Zone Guide, Word Resources Institute and Global Road Safety Facility

Reducing speeds also offers economic benefits. According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, India loses $58 billion or 3% of Gross Domestic Product to road traffic crashes every year. Lower speeds also reduce fuel consumption and pollutant emissions, resulting in air quality gains and mitigation of climate change impacts from the road transport sector.

Though setting speed limits is a contentious issue, countries that have taken the “safe systems” approach have set commendable precedents. This systemic approach focuses on effective road design to ensure safer speeds.

This involves modifying the road environment to streamline traffic flow and vehicle speeds by incorporating traffic calming measures (speed humps, raised crossings and rumble strips) along with ensuring clear traffic signages and road markings.

Measures taken worldwide

  • In 2015, Brazil’s Sao Paulo reduced the speed limit on highways from 90 km per hour to 70 km per hour resulting in a 21.7% reduction in road crashes.
  • In Bristol, fatal road traffic injuries were reduced by 63% with the introduction of a citywide 30 km per hour speed limit between 2008-2016. The Netherlands similarly reduced road traffic fatalities from 35,000 per year in the 1970s to 661 in 2019 by designing roads for lower vehicle speeds.
  • Even Germany, the only country without general speed limits, is set to introduce a 130 km per hour limit on the Autobahn Highway network, to help reduce road crash fatalities and carbon dioxide emissions.

It is time India looks into setting safe speed limits and adopting the safe systems approach. By doing this, India will join countries that have achieved the greatest reduction in fatalities recorded over the last 20 years.

Ojas Shetty is Senior Associate, Sustainable Cities and Transport, World Resources Institute India Ross Centre. Views expressed by the author are personal.