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How Unmanned Level Crossings Spell Danger

Simple danger signages at unmanned level crossings don't work. A bunch of behavioural consultants have a better idea

Published: Dec 14, 2012 06:57:28 AM IST
Updated: Dec 20, 2012 10:03:59 PM IST
How Unmanned Level Crossings Spell Danger
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
DEATH RAILWAY In 2011-12, Indian Railways recorded about 15,000 deaths. Experts say almost 70 percent of these took place at unmanned railway crossings

One recent evening, about 40 km from Bangalore, three men stood near an unmanned level crossing, examining the signages under the golden yellow glow of a sodium vapour lamp above and waiting for a vehicle to pass by. After about 15 minutes, a mini truck scraped through the horizon. As it neared the level crossing, it suddenly swerved from left to right, as if shaken by an invisible giant, leaving the driver, a man in his forties, startled.  

That was the ‘eureka’ moment for one of the observers, who told the others: “That is the key. The way it shakes up the driver makes him alert.” 

What shook the vehicle and jolted the driver out of his stupor? It was a speed-breaker, about 10 feet from the tracks, that ran diagonally, rather than perpendicular, to the road. When the front wheels of the mini van crossed the bump one after the other, rather than in unison, the van swung from side to side.

The people who designed the oddball speed-breaker belong to a company called FinalMile Consulting and the man who runs the show is Biju Dominic. They are into what they call ‘behaviour architecture’ and here’s how they helped the vehicle avert a mishap at the unmanned level crossing.

The speed of the mini truck was reduced when it hit the speed-breaker. Before it was installed, a truck or a tractor would take about 12 seconds to cross the distance of 10 metres. Now, it takes about 16 seconds. That gives the driver about 25 percent more time to observe and understand the driving condition.

What kicks does FinalMile get out of the exercise? Nothing, except that it helps save lives. If you doubt whether something as trivial as a speed-breaker does something as earth-shattering as saving lives, think about the last close shave you had while driving. What if you didn’t have to slam the brakes at the last minute because you had noticed danger signs seconds earlier? That’s exactly what the diagonal speed-breaker does. It warns you about impending danger and gives you those valuable extra seconds. 

How Unmanned Level Crossings Spell Danger
Infographics: Sameer Pawar

Death on the tracks
Unmanned level crossings spell danger across the world. In India, there are about 13,530 of them. Though Indian Railways does not divulge the actual number of deaths at unmanned level crossings, a back-of-the-envelope calculation can help us understand the gravity of the situation. According to a high-level safety committee set up by the government of India earlier this year, Indian Railways recorded about 15,000 deaths in 2011-12. Experts say almost 70 percent of these took place at unmanned railway crossings.

The government can eliminate the danger altogether by shutting down the unmanned crossings, making them manned or constructing roads either above or below the railway tracks. The railway ministry is considering these options. But more deaths are likely to slip past the bureaucratic red tape.

Consider this: Sixty crossings could not be closed despite commissioning of overbridges, due to technical difficulties and the costs involved. Even if the railway ministry garners the political will, the financial muscle and operational flexibility to eliminate all unmanned railway crossings, it might take years to achieve that goal. Ten thousand and five hundred lives a year—or even one for that matter—is too high a price to pay. So, what’s the way out? Enter Biju Dominic.

Behaviour is the key
Dominic did a BTech in mechanical engineering from College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, but even as a student, he was more interested in “human beings than in machines”. He has a wide-ranging interest and draws insights mostly from cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics. Both have come into prominence in recent years, the former thanks to advancement in neuroimaging, and the latter due to some very interesting research by the likes of Daniel Kahneman (who won a Nobel in economics) and Richard Thaler. While these fields of research set parameters to understand human behaviour, Dominic and his team at FinalMile have used these to explain and influence it.

They started with business—using cognitive neuroscience to study human behaviour and assist companies in devising better marketing strategies, for example. It still remains their bread and butter.

They turned their attention to public safety in 2009 with a project to minimise deaths from trespassing along Mumbai’s suburban railway network. That’s no easy task, considering that trespassing used to take at least one life every day.  This despite putting in place all traditional methods to spread awareness: Danger signages, educational programmes, awareness drives. Nothing worked. 

How Unmanned Level Crossings Spell Danger
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
DANGER SIGNS Pictures of impending danger counter the inherent confi dence of the driver and make him stop

Dominic and his team observed the most accident-prone areas near Mumbai’s Wadala station and made a few simple suggestions. Draw bright yellow lines on the sleepers that hold the track, which gave a reference point for the people to judge the speed of the train; blow the train horn twice instead of once for a longer duration, because the brain becomes alert in the intervening period. They were implemented—and the number of deaths dropped to nine in six months and to one in the next six. Prior to this, the number used to be 40.

Thanks to the success of the trespassing project, several divisions of Indian Railways were interested in seeing if a similar approach could work for the problem of unmanned crossings. In 2010, FinalMile was approached by the North Eastern Railway.

The company spent days and nights researching six unmanned level crossings in Rajasthan and four each in Kerala and West Bengal. They studied unauthorised trespassers; travelled in trains sitting next to the loco pilots, observing and conducting interviews with them; spoke to people who passed by the crossings; videographed the areas, studied them at leisure and pored into accident reports.

They noticed several things: Most of the people who used the unmanned level crossings lived in the nearby villages. Since crossings with high vehicular traffic were often manned, the unmanned ones, by definition, saw solitary vehicles. People’s confidence in their ability to cross the tracks ahead of the train was, to a large extent, dictated by the kind of vehicles they were in. Tractors typically stopped even when the trains were at some distance; but smaller cars and two-wheelers crossed the tracks even when the trains were just 150-200 metres away. Accident reports showed fatalities were the highest in jeeps and almost nil in two-wheelers. There were signages—starting at 200 metres—but it didn’t seem to have any impact on the drivers. And finally, they saw that the most crucial part was how attentive the drivers were in the last 10 seconds. This window could make the difference between life and death and this was what FinalMile decided to focus on.

Their interventions—all deceptively simple—are where these observations intersect with insights from cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics.

The first intervention is the speed-breaker we encountered at the beginning of this story. The idea of the diagonal speed-breaker is to break the familiarity of the drivers. The unfamiliar wobble would shake them into alertness. Often, known vehicles and routes lull drivers into a sense of confidence, prompting them to take wrong decisions. The most confident drivers are those in SUVs, Dominic says, as the big vehicle gives them a sense of false security. The dubious distinction of recording the highest fatality rate per kilometre goes to one of the best stretches in the country—the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.

How Unmanned Level Crossings Spell Danger
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
SIZE DOES MATTER The size of an SUV lulls its driver into a false sense of security, prompting him to take wrong decisions

On the other hand, when you are riding a puny two-wheeler, you don’t feel safe. That’s why there were no fatalities in two-wheeler accidents. When you are in a tractor, you don’t believe you can race against the train, so you stop when you hear a whistle several hundred metres away. Similarly, there are hardly any accidents during the night, when drivers tend to be more alert.

Besides the diagonal speed-breakers, FinalMile also suggested that speed-breakers be painted with thicker yellow lines to make them appear taller. So, even before a vehicle approaches the speed breaker, the driver slows down.

The second intervention is a series of photographs—two of them showing an approaching train and the third an image of a frightened man about to be run over. It tackles another cognitive error using lessons drawn from neuroscience.

Human beings tend to underestimate the speed of large objects by 40 percent, according to the Leibowitz Hypothesis. The idea is to counter-balance this by what’s called nexting, playing what’s likely to happen next. Drawing on the research of Joseph LeDoux, a New York University professor of neuroscience and psychology and the theories of neuroscientist, VS Ramachandran, these pictures trigger a sense of fear. Unknown to the driver, this counters the inherent overconfidence. (It worked in Wadala too, where FinalMile displayed large pictures of a man hit by a train.)

Finally, it’s requesting the railways to move the whistle point closer to the unmanned crossing. At present, the trains whistle when they are 600 metres away. FinalMile has suggested that they move it to 300 metres, when the motorists tend to be more attentive.   

You may ask, what does the project hold for Dominic and FinalMile? Financially, nothing. FinalMile doesn’t charge a penny for this project. The cost of infrastructure is borne by the railways. Sometimes, the organisation also bears the cost of travel, but nothing more. These behavioural consultants, as they like to call themselves, just want to prove a point. “There is a certain way the world understands issues of safety. And that’s always looking at the problem from a technical and infrastructure point of view. Our idea is to prove that it will take a neuroscientific approach to solve some of these unsolved issues. That’s our thrill,” says Ram Prasad, co-founder of FinalMile.

(This story appears in the 21 December, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Mrs Ranjit

    A warning red light with an alarm sound - which will be on when the train enters a 1/2km range can be done using a circuit completion

    on Sep 23, 2014
  • Deepak

    Excellent work by Biju and Finalmile. I would say the biggest appreciation for these guys will be when some government officials and politicians take initiative to implement this at-least in a few level crosses. All the best Biju

    on Feb 14, 2013
  • Krishna Chandran

    Great work by the Finalmile team. One minute of thinking can stop many accidents. People care less for these signage\'s and get themselves into troubles. How many of us use Foot overbridge at railway stations? Even if its there nobody cared to use it and still cross railway lines pushing themselves into troubles. Would love to see Biju and Finalmile team use this scientific approach and behaviour in other areas also. Such an inspiring story for entire India. Because you showed us how a simple idea can be a big eyeopener for millions of us.

    on Feb 14, 2013
  • Tony Joseph

    It’s a great endeavour by Finalmile towards the cause of humanity. I have often seen people crossing the railway tracks in Mumbai with no fear of the incoming train or bothering to look at the signage and often wondered it anything could be done to prevent it. Once I actually saw a middle aged lady get hit by a local train in the crossing near Vile Parle Station and was sleepless for many days. It happened in full view of several people and yet no one could do anything. This approach of Biju and team, has answered the prayers of many people. It has shown that with the right intention, strong conviction and scientific approach any problem can be addressed. Our appreciation to the team of Final mile, for rendering this great service to humanity. Also it was very surprising to know that it is done without even charging a single paisa, at a time when greed has overtaken corporates. This at a time , when we see much bigger companies having much higher revenues trying to squeeze as much as possible from Government, evading taxes and exploiting general public. May you have many more success going forward in this endeavour to improve the world.

    on Jan 8, 2013
  • Ranjith P S

    I am very proud to note that a bright engineer from CET where I graduated too has done where others have missed the obvious. We tend to move with the crowd and not be a trend setter. Trust you are taking some thing similar to patents for the wonderful work that you are carying out as you need to be applauded and appreciated for your common sense. Words fail me when I read that you are not rewarded financially for the work done.That is not at all fair when anything and everything in this world talks of a financial impact. Gr8 and keep up the good work.....people like you, can project the God\'s own country on to the global technical map. You folks are entitled for Padmashris.......Any body hearing me?

    on Dec 21, 2012
    • Biju Dominic

      Hi Ranjith, thanks for your compliments. We hope to use the unique understanding we have of human behaviour, to solve many more problems in the Indian society.

      on Dec 24, 2012
  • Gurudas

    Dear Biju, Congratulate Biju and team for the achievement. I doubt the case study reg the 2 wheeler timing(@ wheelers will get 25% more time with a diagonal speed breaker)

    on Dec 17, 2012
    • Ram

      Gurudas, thanks for taking the time to read the article and encouraging words. Fair point on the 2 wheelers. I am guessing that this is due to unfamiliarity. May not last, its not designed to work on 2 wheelers...usually they don\'t get in to trouble.

      on Dec 18, 2012
  • Neville Bastawalla

    Kudos to Final Mile . A lesson for many advertising and communication / marketing professionals.

    on Dec 17, 2012
    • Ram Prasad

      Thanks Neville.

      on Dec 18, 2012
  • Wg Cdr Job Mathew ( Retd)

    Excellent job Dominic and team at FinalMile

    on Dec 17, 2012
    • Ram

      Thanks Wg Cdr Job Mathew.

      on Dec 18, 2012
  • Joe Kidd

    The speed breaker may cause people to be aware the very first time, but the novelty will wear off. Do you feel that it would have the same effect the second time? I know that the final objective is to save lives, but there are many other issues involved. In Karnataka, (dont know about other places), the landscape is \"littered\" with unscientific speed-breakers. You have them in the middle of nowhere, with no purpose. They are set up in front of the houses of local politicians as a sign of \"honor\". I have seen them in the middle of an underpass, there these is absolutely no chance of pedestrians crossing and no chance of any vehicle merging in. You have them so big that your vehicle under-body will touch them, despite all your efforts to avoid the same. What I am trying to say is that in such a scenario, another back-breaking speed-breaker will be ignored as \"just another one\". This movement, in conjunction with the removal of unrequired speed-breakers would be better. Kudos to FinalMile for their work. I am not belittling your efforts at all. Just genuine feedback.

    on Dec 15, 2012
  • Visithyd.com

    Excellent work by Finalmile. Great article explaining the same

    on Dec 14, 2012
    • Ram Prasad

      Thanks for reading and the compliments

      on Dec 18, 2012