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.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.