unsafe roads

Why getting data on road safety wrong is a much bigger deal than it sounds

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, just 5% accident deaths were of pedestrians. But a recent study shows the number is likely to be much higher.

Last week, reports emerged that the National Crime Records Bureau may have under-represented the deaths of pedestrians and motorcyclists in road traffic accidents in India. The reports were based on the findings of a study published online on the journal Injury Prevention, which said the actual figures could be anything between 35% and 40%.

But even as the fact that the official government records could have gotten the numbers so wrong was startling enough, the consequences of such a misrepresentation are much more grave. This is because road safety programmes and policies are drafted based on statistics such as these – and the National Crime Records Bureau data, for 2013 and 2014, creates the illusion of India being a pedestrian-friendly city, even though citizens know that’s often far from the truth.

This is also why the government focuses on building expressways, highways and rapid-transit zones, because data consistently under-represents the pedestrians' side of things, experts said.

What the study found

The study, led by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US, was published on July 25. Researchers found the National Crime Records figure of 5% to be “bizarrely small” given that other countries in South East Asia report a higher number of such deaths. The bureau, attached to the government of India, collects police reports from across the country and collates these to produce official statistics for road traffic injuries.

“We suspected that there was a problem in the National Crime Records Bureau tables that describe what type of road user is killed in traffic crashes,” said Kavi Bhalla, assistant professor at the department of international health at Johns Hopkins.

The authors of the study decided to gauge the discrepancy in the data by accessing First Information Reports filed at local police stations in the district of Belgaum in Karnataka. “We compared the data we extracted from FIRs with the official tabulation for the district and found a large discrepancy,” said Bhalla.

“There were too few pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists in the official tabulations,” Bhalla added. “A lot of pedestrian fatalities are likely to have wrongly been classified as deaths of vehicle occupants in official tabulations.”

The data mismatch

The National Crime Records Bureau data for Belgaum showed that only 9% of deaths were that of pedestrians, but police records reported more than double that number. According to FIRs, pedestrians accounted for 21% of deaths in that year. Although the authors studied just one district, they suspect that the discrepancies will be spread across the country as the system of data collection in all districts remain the same.

“There is a systemic error. How can the number of pedestrian deaths be consistently low?” asked K Ramachandra Rao, associate professor, civil engineer, IIT Delhi, who is also a member of the faculty of its Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how to reduce the negative health impacts of transport, including accidents and pollution.

Rao said that pedestrians are widely known to be most vulnerable to accidents. “When going by car, passengers are in an enclosure that serves as a safety net,” he said. “But those on two-wheelers and pedestrians are the most vulnerable.”

Impact on policy

What makes the consequences of such misrepresentations grave is that they can also adversely impact policy interventions, which are largely designed based on these numbers.

The National Crime Records Bureau data under-represents pedestrian, bicyclists and motorcyclists and over-represents vehicle occupants.

“These statistics are used to allocate resources for safety programmes and policies and policies for each of these groups,” said Bhalla, the lead author of the study. “Thus, the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists is neglected and the interests of vehicle owners get priority.”

Owing to this, India’s focus lies on improving highways and making roads wider, smoother and faster. “This is more dangerous for pedestrians and people on two-wheelers,” said Bhalla.

This view is reiterated by Sudhir Badami, a member of a state committee in Maharashtra that looks into prevention of road accidents. “The need of pedestrians is not looked into seriously and most planning is done keeping in mind the motorised vehicles,” he said.

According to Badami, most pedestrian deaths are reported from rural areas, where motorised vehicles tend to speed. “Planners are travelling by cars and they don’t drive their own vehicles,” he said. “Hence, they don’t observe or experience the problem.”

However, even a correct count of pedestrian deaths wouldn’t be the end of it, said Rishi Aggarwal co-founder of the Mumbai Transport Forum, a citizen group working towards identifying sustainable transport solutions for the city. “Several people meet with accidents that may not necessarily result in death," he said. “Most of these accidents are never reported, while vehicle occupants report every accident to claim insurance.”

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