Highway to Hell

More than 300 people die everyday on Indian roads, but who is to blame and what are we doing about it?

Published: Jun 25, 2011
Highway to Hell
Image: Vikas Khot

Well I’m dead on the highway at 26
Oh momma won’t you pick up and stitch
Me a blanket to lay me down
It may be cold where I’m bound
   Dead on the Highway by
Sons of the Never Wrong

Dawn was yet to break when the constant ringing of the phone woke up Yogesh Shinde. “Yogesh Shinde?” asked an unfamiliar voice.


“I’m the patrol officer of Khopoli Police Station,” said the voice. Khopoli is 75 km north-east of Mumbai, on the road to Pune. “Come to Lifeline Hospital at Panvel. Your brother has had an accident.”

Yogesh’s brother and three cousins were in a truck that was carrying logs from Satara to Mumbai. Gokul, Yogesh’s cousin, was behind the wheel. At 4:30 am, when the truck started going downhill, Gokul switched off the engine and let the vehicle move downward on momentum and gravity. Periodically, he applied the brakes to check the speed. As the descent became sharper and the road became more serpentine, Gokul had to use the brakes more frequently.

Gokul, 50, did not know that the weight of the truck and its speed were wearing down the break liners quickly. And as the engine was switched off, it was not controlling the speed. At some point, the brakes failed. The truck first smashed into the median on the road, turned turtle and slid across to the opposite lane. Vijay, Yogesh’s brother, was badly hurt, but alive. But his cousins died. And all because Gokul thought he could save a few hundred rupees on fuel by switching off the engine.

This incident represents almost everything that is wrong with Indian roads. There was no single overriding reason for Gokul’s blunder. On the face of it, he just wanted to save some bucks. But was he properly trained to drive a commercial vehicle? Can road signs on such roads be more effective? These are questions that deserve introspection.

As things stand today, India ranks No. 1 on the list of road fatalities, globally. According to the latest figures available, in 2009, more than 1,26,896 people were killed in road accidents.

 A 2009 World Health Organisation survey says that more than 300 people die everyday on Indian roads and at least two million people have disabilities caused from a road accident.

But there has not been any study to figure out why and how to curb such accidents.

Early this month, N. Mariam Pitchai, a Tamil Nadu minister, was killed in a car crash. Tamil Nadu has the highest road fatality toll in the country where close to 15,000 people die every year. In Maharashtra, more than 35 people die every day.

But despite such high numbers, we fail to take our roads seriously. Dr. Dinesh Mohan, professor of road safety at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, explains this attitude. Every year, in his road safety class, he announces a prize of Rs. 1,000 for any student who can walk fast, head down, and hit the classroom wall. “Nobody wants to do it because logically they know there is a good chance they might get hurt,” says Mohan.

But when these same people are on the road, they think that they are unlikely to be in a crash. Indians also believe that building more lanes or roads is a quick fix solution.

In the last 15 years, the government has been busy building roads to enable our growing economy. The two-lane tracks of the past were notorious for killing those who showed undue haste. High-speed highways, like the Mumbai-Pune expressway, that killed Yogesh’s cousins, were supposed to deliver us from such worries. But unfortunately, they haven’t.

Highway to Hell
Image: Vikas Khot
FALSE SAFETY High-speed highways have not reduced accident in India

Fast Tracks
Ironically, the birth of the Mumbai-Pune expressway has its roots in a tragedy. India’s first modern and access-controlled highway was built after Binda Thackeray, 42, Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s son, was killed in a car crash on the National Highway (NH) 4 on April 19, 1996.

The 160 km long NH 4 that connects Mumbai and Pune is a tortuous road and with close to seven accidents everyday on an average, it used to kill around 400 people every year. The death of a kin of a powerful politician ensured that the expressway was built in record time with high standards. Now the number of deaths have come down to 150.

At 93 km, the expressway is shorter than the NH 4. But 10 years after it was opened, accidents continue to plague it. Close to 120-135 people die on the expressway every year. In the last six months alone, more than 40 people have lost their lives. But this is not a problem endemic to this stretch. In January-March 2011, 35 people lost their lives in around 80 reported accidents on the 28 km Delhi-Gurgaon expressway.

India is planning to add more than 18,000 km of four to six lane access-controlled expressways in the next 10 years to help people reach their destination faster. But these expressways have become death traps because we don’t understand high-speed roads. Forbes India looks at four major aspects — highway guard rails, vehicle tyres, the psychological impact of speeding and the licensing system — to delve into the truth about our highway deaths.

Swinging Without the Net

Let’s start with the guard rail. It is one of the most important safety elements on a road designed for high speed. It is a high “divider” whose main function is to ensure that it keeps moving straight ahead when a car hits it. The friction between the vehicle and the guard rail makes the vehicle stop so that it doesn’t turn turtle or go over to another lane. The ideal height of such a guard rail should be at least three feet. But our guard rails are less than two feet high. So, instead of protecting an out-of-control vehicle at high speed, they actually help in toppling it. In fact, on many roads, guard rails are non-existent.   

 “When you want people to drive at 80 km/hour the road has to be designed to accommodate much higher energy levels and much slower decision making time because you are moving faster. And then you have to give people a lot of space to make mistakes,” says Mohan. More importantly, when a road is designed, it must build in safeguards because at high speed, accidents are bound to happen.

 “When the newspapers and the police say that an accident happened because a vehicle’s tyres had blown out, it is not correct. The tyres don’t blow out; they get damaged because of low guard rails. At high speed, when a vehicle hits a low guard rail, the tyres come in contact with the top of the guard rail and get torn, causing the vehicle to topple,” says Mohan. The Mumbai-Pune expressway has a drain in the middle on some stretches and in case of an accident, it could lead to a similar situation where a vehicle can overturn.

Highway to Hell
Image: Vikas Khot

Tyred Out
But low guard rails alone cannot be blamed for our highway deaths. When it comes to changing tyres regularly, most people have a callous attitude. “People don’t change their toothbrush in six months, do you think they care about their vehicles’ tyres?” says Ram Prasad, behaviour architect at FinalMile, a consulting firm in Mumbai which specialises in behaviour and risk assessment.

We camped on the Mumbai-Pune expressway for a day with the Apollo Tyres technical services team and found that almost all commercial vehicles have over inflated tyres. Such tyres have less friction force against them and hence it takes less force for the vehicle to move and this in turn saves fuel. However, what truckers don’t realise is that even a sharp stone can tear an overinflated tyre when it makes contact at high speed.

Most passenger vehicles have underinflated tyres which cause too much friction. This generates heat and can cause tyres to burst. “Most drivers have no idea of the recommended tyre pressure, speed rating or condition of their tyres. We have done extensive drives across the country to educate people and quite often we have found that they smile, listen and drive away without doing anything even if their tyres are cracked or punctured,” says Jagdish Prasad, divisional head, technical services at Apollo Tyres. In our survey of 155 passenger vehicles on the expressway, we found that 34 percent of the vehicles had worn out or punctured tyres.

Need for Speed
The misconception that people have about their tyres also extends to their driving abilities. Most people think they can handle speed. However, speed can destroy a driver’s humanity. For example, sight plays a vital role in establishing a human connection. Once two people make eye contact, there is an emotion which is exchanged. “I make eye contact with you so there is an emotion I can read and you can read and probably there is humanness between both of us,” says Prasad of FinalMile.

But this ability to make eye contact is reduced when one drives at a speed of 30 km/hour. On highways, when one is driving above 80 km/hour, one only sees objects and not people.

When one’s humanity diminishes, one’s alertness also drops. This happens because on the highway, there are fewer obstacles. Researchers call this phenomenon ‘highway hypnosis’ or ‘time gap experience’. Most frequent highway drivers have a story of how they suddenly woke up and could not recollect what they had been doing a few minutes back.

This is because the more ‘over learned’ an activity, the less cognitive the work load involves. When one gets used to driving, it does not require one’s full attention and this is when one gets bored and distracted. But a momentary lapse can sometimes cost a life. Researchers have proven that it takes only three seconds of loss of concentration to get into a crash.

Licenced to Kill
Most potential drivers are hardly given these facts before they are issued a license. Additionally, the licensing process in India is itself flawed. A few years ago, Marianne Bertrand and Chris P. Dialynas, professors of economics at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, studied the process of obtaining a driving license in Delhi. The study found that, on an average, individuals pay almost twice the official amount to obtain a license and very few actually take the mandated driving test resulting in many ‘unqualified’ licensed drivers.

Infographic: Sameer pawar

The study found that 61 percent of the participants were able to obtain a permanent license during the course of the project. After acquiring the temporary license, it took them, on an average, 42 days to obtain the permanent license (12 more days than the legal minimum of 30 days). But there were two startling findings.

Licence getters paid, on an average, Rs. 1,080 for their licence — more than double the official cost of Rs. 450. Only 41 percent of the individuals that received a license took the mandated driving test at the Regional Transport Office. In fact, a large percentage of licence getters were unable to drive at the time they received their licenses; 46 percent failed the independently-administered oral driving test, which means that they knew very little about the workings of a car.

“In the UK, there are 40 percent chances that you might not clear your driving test in the first attempt,” says a senior official at one of the largest automobile companies in India.

So, can we get away from the tragedy of mindless accidents? China suffers from the same problem. But a researcher called Jin Huiqing has come up with three lines of defence against such accidents. The three lines are a) using written tests and physical exams to test visual acuity and mental alertness b) to screen truck drivers and other professional drivers for accident-proneness; using simulators and other methods to train drivers and correct poor driving habits and c) installing cameras to monitor dangerous intersections and road conditions for driver behaviour and road safety.

But are there any similar defence mechanisms being considered in India? Apparently not. Why else would the National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill 2010 be languishing in the vaults? The bill was presented in the Lok Sabha in May 2010 with the idea to create a central body to deal with the issue of road safety. It was then referred to a Parliamentary standing committee, headed by the Communist Party of India’s (CPM) Sitaram Yechury. The parliamentary panel made stinging remarks about the very purpose of having such a board and said that “in the name of having an integrated mechanism, the ministry was creating yet another institution, adding to existing ones, instead of reducing their numbers”. In fact, while releasing the report, Yechury went on to say that the board looked like an attempt to create another “post-retirement opportunity for bureaucrats”.

But what Yechury does not realise is that for people like Vijay, Yogesh Sinde’s brother, premature retirement seems to be the only option after an accident. After being in a state of coma for more than 45 days, Vijay is hardly able to talk. He is unable to walk, get up from bed, or even lie down in one position for more than 10 minutes. His parents have borrowed beyond their means and have already spent more than Rs. 12 lakh on their only son’s treatment. Vijay now has a long and arduous journey ahead of him even as Indian roads continue to be harsh judges of human lives.


(This story appears in the 01 July, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Mani

    The first and foremost thing to implement is a strict rule licensing procedure with both theory and practical test on rules and regulations to follow. We built good high speed roads with no knowledge on what is lane discipline. e.g. I got my Indian driving license by just standing next to a car. (and ofcourse with all "important" documents).

    on Jul 3, 2011
  • Jn

    Life has no value in India. India does not have road standard, road rules. Government is making money in unscrupulous taxes and only setting up toll gates but no regulations, no road maintenance. Lane system must be made compulsory in India. 2-wheelers must severely checked for left overtaking. Mirrors especially, Left mirrors must be made compulsory in 4-wheel and higher vehicles. Lane cutting driving must be banned. Radar must be installed and enforced. Speed limits on highways are two high. May no one cares, it is probably population control.

    on Jun 29, 2011
  • Yogish Mallya

    It is unfortunate that our law makers have total disregard and lack seriousness in recognising the urgent need for drastic changes in the antiquated rules related to the Road Transport sector. There is a need for involvement of experts in formulating rules covering entire driving licensing process including setting minimum qualifications for the training school & those issuing the licenses etc...apart from the revival of scientific design of road, traffic management, annual inspection of vehicle etc. In the absence of these, all the investments directed to improve road infrastructure in India will only lead to exponential increase in road fatalities.

    on Jun 28, 2011
  • Venkat Subbaiah

    The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) should be empowered with Road Safety Management teams at vulnerable places - prone to high-risk accident zones. I would like to bring about to Road Safety Management Authorities to deploy mobile stations as like '108' services in AP at various corners of the country after demarkation of 'death zones' high-risk, moderate-risk, low-risk based on the accidents. You can not prevent accidents but you can try to minimize the number of deaths in such emergency situations by simply offering mobile road medicines (MRM) to injured people. I see in my own state, Andhra Pradesh a lot of deaths on various kinds of road accidents. There are very high risk zones which are labeled as death-zones where the notion is the lord Yama is following your shadow in these categories. Please save injured passengers or travelers and minimize deaths for various trivial reasons. Timely medical assistance is what they need to save accident-hit people. Save injured people and try to turn all our National Highways to Suburban Roads - to Safety 100% zones. Some good people in NHAI and Road Safety Management Bodies should allocate more funds in this category and improve the conditions and safety of road passengers.

    on Jun 26, 2011
  • Adityamehra

    The indian goverment needs to wake up from dr fairy tale start as an emerging power..to become one powerful nation we need road safety n rules that need to be implied by the corrupt politicians who are only concerned about making roads n not giving top priority to road safety. It is a matter of consideration, which if not applied to could lead to catastrophic events n more deaths..

    on Jun 25, 2011
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