May 16 was just another tiring day for migrant workers in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown. Tired of walking endlessly to reach their villages in Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, around 50 migrants travelling from Rajasthan had hitched a ride with a goods truck. However, the truck went on to collide with a van in Auraiya district in Uttar Pradesh.

The high intensity of the crash caused both the vehicles to overturn, killing at least 24 migrant labourers on board and leaving the others critically injured.

This road crash in Auraiya district is one of the numerous mass fatalities to have been reported in the country since a nationwide lockdown was declared in March. On average, every second road crash claimed at least one person’s life during the lockdown – a time when a vast majority of the population was restricted to the confines of their home. In fact, 750 deaths in 1,461 road crashes were recorded across the country, between the months of March and May.

It was observed that while the number of road crash fatalities had dipped due to the reduction in vehicular traffic, the rate of deaths in road accidents remained unaltered.

India has the highest number of road crash fatalities in the world. The human cost of road crashes is enormous, as is the economic cost. With increased medical expenses and the loss of livelihood, such crashes tend to have the worst impact on the underprivileged. As a result, families with a meagre or no source of income are often pushed into poverty while trying to cope with debts and expenses.

According to a World Bank report, India can add 14% to its Gross Domestic Product per capita if it successfully halves the number of road accidents crashes and injuries by 2038. With 69% of the fatalities involving road users between the ages of 18 years to 45 years – the economically productive segment – road casualties hurt GDP growth rates by increasing productivity costs.

Hence, the urgency in addressing road safety issues cannot be emphasised enough across all levels of the government. Especially in the battle to contain the spread of the coronavirus, road safety is a paramount concern for providing safe passageways to facilitate immediate medical attention. Therefore, a concerted, comprehensive and targeted approach is needed at the institutional level to bring about a positive change.

The Centre’s intervention

The key to implementing road safety measures requires a cohesive approach, involving equal parts governance, law enforcement, raising awareness and post-crash care. The Central Government has created a framework – notably the Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Act – for reducing the number of casualties. Notified in 2019, the Act envisages various enabling provisions that will lay the solid foundation for road safety and traffic management.

Linking infrastructure to safety, the Act empowers the government to penalise contractors and consultants who fail to engineer or maintain safe roads. The Act also empowers the state government to institutionalise standards for road design and maintenance. The Act also addresses the aspect of rendering emergency services by instituting provisions for the protection of good samaritans – that is those who come forward to help accident victims – from civil or criminal liability.

Actor Shabana Azmi's vehicle was involved in a crash in January on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. She received only minor injuries. Credit: PTI

Streamlining road safety

While adopting safe road practices requires a multi-pronged approach, the onus of its success rests with the state governments. Road safety is a concurrent subject in India and the success of the Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Act relies on the states to implement policies and rules related to road safety.

For instance, the Zero Fatality Corridor Project started by SaveLIFE Foundation in partnership with Maharashtra government on Mumbai Pune Expressway in 2016. In 2016, the Expressway saw an Auraiya-like crash where 16 people died when the bus they were travelling in fell 20 feet into a ditch. By 2019, the project had already delivered a 43% reduction in fatalities and showcased a replicable model ready to be institutionalised and implemented by other state governments.

The model addresses the 16 most common road engineering issues through an eight-point approach, optimises enforcement by implementing a six-point protocol, ensures commuter behaviour change through five key messages and optimises trauma care through five replicable practices. The model is backed by forensic crash investigation and crash data analysis across India.

Taking a cue from this initiative, it can be said that states can leverage the potential of data analytics to prevent any loss of lives in road accidents. The vast volumes of data generated by the traffic management system can be stored on the cloud and used by the local police administration to map out accident hotspots under their jurisdiction. Ambulances can then be put on standby at these hotspots for speedy medical care. Additionally, this data can be used by the authorities to increase police patrol presence in selected areas to prevent cases of speeding.

The Tamil Nadu government implemented a similar approach to reduce road accident deaths and has been vastly successful. The state witnessed a 24% drop in road accidents in 2018 compared to 2017.

The road ahead

Better policies and stricter enforcement of regulations could have averted the fatal crash in Auraiya and saved the lives of many sole breadwinners. India needs to implement proven best practices to ensure the safety of road users.

With a strong commitment from the Central and state governments, various best practices can be implemented and scaled up to improve safety and save lives on India’s roads.

Piyush Tewari is the Founder and CEO of SaveLIFE Foundation and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.