Rear seat belts are good, but will they save us from poorly constructed roads?

The tragic, premature and unnecessary death of Cyrus Mistry, 54, the affable billionaire and scion of Shapoorji Pallonji Mistry and his friend, in a horrific road accident, has led to awareness and information about the importance of seat belts, especially for those who sit in the back. Seat belts undoubtedly save lives and we need to wear them, but keep in mind that they do nothing to prevent avoidable crashes or serious injuries.

It’s a much bigger issue that we’re losing sight of, in the deluge of seatbelt tutorials and demands for punitive action for not wearing them. The media, by giving us raucous coverage of the accident, would be doing a much greater service if they looked more deeply into what makes Indian roads so dangerous. If the only result of the wide media coverage and discussions sparked by this horrific tragedy was to impose higher fines for not wearing rear seat belts, it would all have been in vain. Worse still, by losing sight of the bigger picture, we will once again let the government off the hook.

India has been constructing new and expensive highways, highways and super highways at breakneck speed over the past two decades. The National Highway Development Program has rolled out 55,528 km of new highways since the year 2000. Over 12,000 km of highways are currently in various stages of upgrading to international standards. The government collects heavy and increasing tolls to build and maintain these roads, but this does not lead to safer or smoother road travel. The numbers speak for themselves.

Those who travel the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route are already talking about the serious problem of road design and the death toll at the very spot where Cyrus Mistry and the Pundole family encountered a disastrous accident. A preliminary investigation by a forensic team reportedly confirmed the design flaw. The busy highway is also poorly maintained, riddled with potholes, and traffic disorder is rampant. History repeats itself on most highways, including official indifference to complaints and protests and is reflected in the high number of accidents and fatalities. The National Criminal Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that 150,000 people die on Indian roads every year (as of the year 2020), including almost 50,000 on national highways.

The government’s response is a simple formula that applies to national roads as well as urban roads: install speed cameras, impose speed limits on cars, ban two-wheelers from certain bridges and levy heavy fines for non- respect. There is never any effort to look at the accidents through the prism of scientific road safety studies in India and across the world which have clearly established the cause of road accidents and fatalities in India.

Write for the Transport and Communications Bulletin for Asia and the Pacific Atul Kumar identifies the three main causes of road accidents in India: inadequate safety measures for vulnerable road users, inadequate enforcement of traffic rules and lack of awareness among road users, and preventive measures. inadequate engineering to improve highways. Road geometry is the most important element in road design, as faulty design/engineering can lead to “black spots” or high crash zones, he says. This clearly applies to the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway which ended Mr Mistry’s life, as witnessed by experienced and regular users and even local police.

Bombay Diary Midday cites a very experienced user, Harbans Singh Nanade of All India Vahan Chalak Malak Mahasangh, who is very specific about the faulty design of this specific stretch where the accident occurred. He reportedly said: “The width of the southbound lane on the Charoti flyover is 10.50 meters, which is reduced to 7 meters on the bridge that is being built over the Surya River. What kind of road engineering is it? The lane is also winding and the person driving cannot see the L-shaped death trap the gynecologist (Dr Anahita Pandole) rushed into. “A new driver often misjudges the black point and falls into the L-shaped death trap,” he adds.

Another user, Bhushan Mhapralkar, said in a social media post about the flawed design that the “specific stretch over the Surya River suddenly turns into two narrow bridges with suddenly narrowing lanes,” with no signage or Warning.

Mr Nanade told the newspaper that he had written several times to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and had also filed requests under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, but did not had received no response. Local police also wrote to NHAI, with no response. But, of course, the government reacted to Mr. Mistry’s death. Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari speaking to the media after Mr Mistry’s death spoke of his intention to impose a fine on those caught without a seatbelt fastened, that they are seated in the front or in the back. There will also be alarms if the rear seat belts are not fastened, like those for the front seat belts. His other solution was to require more airbags per car.

Speaking at the National Civil Engineers Convention on September 6, Mr Gadkari made an extraordinary statement. He attributed the road accidents to flawed project reports. “Some DPRs (Detailed Project Reports) prepared by companies are the worst and responsible for road accidents in the country,” he said and wished for training programs for companies preparing DPRs. This astonishing admission by a high-ranking minister was blandly reported by all the media, which were simultaneously doing tutorials and scientific discussions on seat belts. The minister’s admission caused neither shock nor consternation, given that his department has cleared tens of thousands of miles of roads, possibly with faulty DPRs, design and geometry. Not only does the country pay a price, but, to add insult to injury, we are forced to queue and pay tolls for it.

Don’t you think Mr. Gadkari should have responded to the death of Cyrus Mistry by ordering a full safety audit of our main national roads? And announced a time-limited program to correct faulty design, lighting, signage, sudden embankments and poorly done road repairs and to ensure clear signage long before the sudden roadblocks that are ubiquitous on our highways.

The pathetic condition and unruliness of overloaded trucks is a big reason motorists break the rules and overtake on the left on highways. Barely pushing their weight at around 20 km/h (kilometers per hour), these trucks block multiple lanes (even on three-lane highways) leaving drivers with no choice but to try and find ways forward . If they didn’t, there would be a bigger problem of traffic build-up which would significantly increase travel time. The frequent breakdown of these trucks on poorly lit roads is another major cause of accidents on highways.

Why has Mr. Gadkari announced no effort to use technology and traffic cameras to identify these offenders and remove them from the roads? As the man who built India’s first and most modern high-speed highway between Mumbai and Pune, and who even wrote a book about it, Mr Gadkari is well aware of all the problems and their solutions. He must tell us why they are not implemented. Instead, it plays the gallery announcing fines and rear seat belt beeps.

Mr. Gadkari is also silent on city roads, where two-wheelers, with children in precarious situations, ride without any protection (no belt or helmet) or try to regulate them. Don’t they deserve government action for their own protection, just like the wealthiest people driving well-designed cars on poorly built or poorly maintained roads?

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