The impact of road safety goes far beyond its direct effect on preserving life and limb. In addition to ensuring an easier, comfortable and more secure commute, safer roads also have a tremendous positive impact on the environment.
In 2021, India reported 4,03,116 crashes, each of which may have affected the environment to different degrees and in various ways. Most vehicles contain toxic metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium or hexavalent chromium, which are highly detrimental for the environment.
One of the first things witnessed at any road crash site is fuel and fluid leaks that emit harmful chemicals leading to air, water and soil pollution. The massive number of road crashes registered in India, year after year, have a significant negative effect on the environment.
Severe road crashes also lead to automobile wreckages that become a part of the unusable end-of-life vehicles, giving rise to scrappage. India is estimated to have about 22.5 million end-of-life vehicles by 2025. Despite being one of the largest car and light commercial vehicle markets in the world, India’s National Automobile Scrappage Policy, launched in August 2021, is still in its nascent stages.
With the absence of widespread, systematic facilities dedicated to proper recycling, abandoned road crash vehicles and old end-of-life automobiles left to rot by the wayside are a common sight across cities.
Some of them end up at landfills or informal recycling facilities where rudimentary hand tools are used to unscientifically dismantle them, leading to the leakage of hazardous constituents such as oils, coolants, glass wool and more. Vehicle landfills turn into automobile graveyards, a wasteful and sub-optimal use of land that also causes prolonged water and soil pollution stretching over decades.
Road safety and environmental sustainability are intertwined. Being cognisant of the latter while working on the former is the need of the hour, along with action geared towards long-term environmental preservation and sustenance.
One of the biggest causes of road crashes is speeding. In 2020 alone, speeding was responsible for 91,239 road crash fatalities, comprising 69.3% of all such deaths registered. Speeding has consistently been responsible for over 60% of all road crash fatalities in India during the past five years.
Simulation exercises conducted in Europe have demonstrated that cutting motorway speed limits even by 10 km/hour can deliver 12%–18% fuel savings for current passenger cars, along with a significant reduction in pollutant emissions, particularly NOx and particulate matter (PM) output from diesel vehicles.
A similar study conducted in Amsterdam showed that where the speed limit was lowered from 100 kmph to 80 kmph, particulate matter reduced by up to 15% significantly improving air quality. Studies also show that 96.5 kmph of highway speed limits are 25% more efficient than 120 kmph, in which case wind resistance leads to more fuel consumption.
Consequently, several governments globally have reduced speed limits to prevent crashes and lower air pollution. For instance, the Wales government brought in 80 kmph speed limits at five locations to reduce outdoor pollution and improve public health. In India, the “Zero-Fatality Corridor” solution for road safety by the SaveLIFE Foundation, of which this author is a part of, focuses on reducing speeding through engineering and enforcement technologies.
Vegetation on or very close to the road stretches often falls prey to road widening initiatives. On the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and the Old Mumbai-Pune Highway, or National Highway 48, the Zero-Fatality Corridor programme has helped bring down road crash fatalities by 52% and 61%, respectively.
The recommendations have been environment-friendly and include guarding natural hard structures like trees using crash barriers to prevent direct collisions, and installing retro reflective signage on the trees to make them more visible. The Union government, too, is now building green corridors to go over forests and animal paths instead of through them. Scaling the same will have a profound impact on preserving the environment while ensuring better road connectivity.
Roads and the environment are shared, democratic spaces that are also our joint responsibility. Safer roads and a sustainable environment can be ensured only through the joint efforts of road managing agencies, enforcement officials as well as the public. Each effort in this direction, no matter how small, can save lives through safer roads and a better environment.
Piyush Tewari is the Founder and CEO of SaveLIFE Foundation (SLF), a non-profit organisation committed to saving lives on roads in India since 2008.