Road accidents cost India 3-5% of gross domestic product every year, and are avoidable if India could improve its roads and city planning, train its drivers better, and enforce traffic laws properly, an Indiaspend analysis shows.

India’s young, productive population, aged 18-45 years, is involved in 70% of road accidents, according to data from Road Accidents in India 2018, a report published by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.

Over a period of 24 years from 2014 to 2038, if India could halve the deaths and injuries due to road traffic, its GDP could increase by 7%, a 2018 World Bank report said.

In 2018, India had 467,044 reported road accidents, an increase of 0.5% from 464,910 in 2017, according to the road ministry’s data.

India has 1% of the world’s vehicles but accounts for 6% of the world’s road traffic accidents, according to data from a 2018 World Health Organization report. As many as 73% of all deaths due to road traffic accidents in 2018 in the South and South-East Asia region happened in India, the report said.

Road accidents are one of the 12 most common causes of deaths in India, the ninth most common cause of premature deaths, and the 10th most common reason for disability, according to the 2017 WHO Global Health Estimates.

In 2018, of all road deaths, the most were of those riding two-wheelers (36%), followed by pedestrians (15%), ministry data shows.

Speeding and drink driving

The two most frequent causes of road deaths are speeding and drunk driving, followed by a lack of lane discipline (driving on the wrong side), jumping the red light and the use of a mobile phone while driving, data shows.

Overspeeding is the most common cause of deaths on roads in India, with 64% of road deaths because of speeding. Sixty per cent of the accidents in India occur on highways, mostly because of speeding, said Piyush Tewari from Save a Life Foundation.

The most deaths due to speeding were in Rajasthan (9,618 deaths), followed by Tamil Nadu (9,224 deaths) and Karnataka (8,714 deaths).

The fine for speeding has increased from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000 since September, 2019 under the new Motor Vehicles Act of 2019. In addition, drivers could also be imprisoned for three months for speed racing – an illegal race – if it is their first offence, and for a period of one year if it is the second offence, according to the law.

The current speed limit in the country is 80 km per hour on a 4-lane highway. However, the WHO has recommended that if we reduce the speed limit to about 55-57 km per hour, we could save around 30%-37% lives, said Patanjali Nayyar, regional advisor for the WHO.

Accidents due to drunk driving – under the influence of alcohol or drugs – declined by 14% between 2017 and 2018 because of an increase in fines and better implementation of laws, mostly in metro cities, and because of greater media coverage of the issue, according to experts.

The new motor vehicles law increased punishment for the first offence to imprisonment up to six months and/or fine up to Rs 10,000, and for the second offence to two years and/or fine of Rs 15,000. Earlier, the fine was Rs 2,000 or six months for the first offence and Rs 3,000 or two years imprisonment, according to the Motor Vehicles Act 1989.

Poor enforcement

India’s traffic laws are stricter than those of other countries but these laws are not enforced.

In many other countries, such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, where they have better enforcement, the alcohol is limit is 0.08 mg/l, higher than the 0.05 mg/l in India, said Nayyar of the WHO. “In many countries crashes due to alcohol have been reduced due to enforcement of their laws and education.”

India’s enforcement of laws on speeding and drunk driving are rated 3 and 4 out of 10, respectively, compared to 8 and 9 in China and 9 (for both) in Sri Lanka, by the Global Road Safety Report 2018, that analysed traffic laws of 175 countries.

India has a paucity of traffic police – 30% of 85,144 traffic policemen positions and 39% of 58,509 sanctioned traffic constable positions were vacant in 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Police Research and Development.

Enforcement of laws can reduce drunk driving, said Tewari of Save a Life Foundation, and gave the example of Satyendra Garg, who was the joint commissioner of traffic in New Delhi in 2012 and would conduct random “anti-drink and drive drives” almost every day. Because of the fear of these checks, people stopped drinking and driving, Tewari said. Over 12,000 people were prosecuted for drunk driving in New Delhi in 2011, up from 8,648 in 2010, according to data from the International Road Federation, a global non-profit working on road safety.

“When it comes to enforcement we know human behaviour is affected by enforcement and in India, enforcement is largely driven by human beings and is prone to corruption,” said Tewari. He suggests using artificial intelligence, in the form of road sensors to detect speed, and adaptive traffic lighting (in which traffic signal timing changes, or adapts, based on actual traffic demand) for enforcing traffic laws, such as in Sri Lanka and Bhutan.

City planning

On many roads there are no traffic-calming measures such as speed humps before intersections or median barriers, Tewari said.

Roads should be made not just for use by four-wheelers but also for two-wheelers and pedestrians, and towns should be planned not just for expressways and commercial areas but also for hawkers and vendors, Nayyar said. For instance, safer highways should be created by adding underpasses for pedestrians, especially those that are vulnerable, such as pregnant women and the elderly.

Nayyar gave the example of the Delhi-Agra highway where the highway has divided villages, but there are no pedestrian crossings. “How do we expect people whose village has been divided by that highway to crossover to their fields everyday? There are some villages on this stretch of the highway that are villages of widows due to the deaths caused by road accidents,” Nayyar said.

Driver training

In 2018, in 26% of all road accidents, drivers who were in an accident did not have a valid license or were driving with a learner’s license, ministry data shows.

In any case, licences are not a sign that the driver is qualified, experts said.

For example, if we go out and ask drivers about the three-second rule (which ensures driving at a safe speed, and the distance between two vehicles) or whether they are aware of a blindspot in their vehicle while driving, 99% will not know because they have not received any sort of formal training, said Tewari.

“Basically we made a road and allowed untrained drivers...Drivers need hard skills training on driving, not just ads and awareness,” he said.

“We have announced that we will reduce traffic deaths by 50%. This is a joke unless and until we combine efforts in the four E’s: engineering, enforcement, education, and emergency response,” Tewari said.

Data management systems

India had about 300,000 road deaths in 2016, almost double the government estimate of 151,000 deaths, according to the 2018 Global Road Safety report of the WHO, highlighting the lack of quality road accident data.

“The data is deeply fractured… The biggest challenge in data collection in road accidents is the crash investigation report. When a crash occurs very little is done to determine the cause of the crash. Attempt is made to fix the responsibility on the driver of the bigger car,” said Piyush Tewari.

For instance, in states where alcohol is banned, such as Bihar, Nagaland and Gujarat, there has been a decline in accidents due to drunk driving, data shows.

“My sense is that the more you ban something, the more people are likely to do it,” Tewari said. But not all states have a good data management system, so they might be under-reporting accidents or not managing the data well, he explained.

“The state of Kerala has banned alcohol, but it also has a very good data recording system,” Tewari said. In Kerala, drunk driving accidents increased from 35 in 2014 to 133 in 2017. Alcohol was banned in the state between 2014 and 2017.

Goa, with the highest per capita availability of alcohol, had no road deaths due to drunk driving in 2016, which is likely to be because of an error in collecting information on accidents, Tewari said. In 2018, Goa reported nine accidents due to drunk driving and four deaths.

Often, traffic police do not have the necessary equipment to determine the cause of an accident. For instance, most police report a case of drunk driving only through smelling, since most of them do not have a breathalyzer, especially in smaller cities, said Patanjali Dev Nayyar, the regional advisor for disability, injury prevention and rehabilitation at WHO.

“If the police arrive late at the scene of the accident, it is difficult to determine whether alcohol was involved,” Daniel Keniston, an assistant professor at Yale University, told IndiaSpend in July 2017.

This article first appeared on Indiaspend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.