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Mounting highway fatalities: Why are we so lax?

In 2021, 1.55 lakh lives were lost in road crashes in India. That amounts to an average of 426 accidents every day. This is a record, unprecedented in scale, unpardonable in an era when sound road and vehicular design, stringent law enforcement and technology could smartly arrest the dangerous slide.

By Rasheed Kappan
New Update

publive-image Photographs from the scene of the deadly accident at Palghar in which Cyrus Mistry was killed | Photo courtesy: @AdityaRajKaul | Twitter

Perched at the bottom of road safety standards, the National Highways have taken a vicious, dangerous turn in recent years. But it took the death of former Tata Sons chairman Cyrus Mistry in a car accident to bring the issue to the spotlight, triggering a slew of policy statements and proclamations of intent. Yet, a question looms: Are they enough? 

Consider these mind-numbing statistics: In the calendar year of 2021 alone, a whopping 1.55 lakh lives were snuffed out in road crashes countrywide. That amounts to an average of 426 accidents every day. This is a record, unprecedented in scale, unpardonable in an era when sound road and vehicular design, stringent law enforcement and technology could smartly arrest the dangerous slide.

There were no surprises. A safety audit by the International Road Federation (IRF) at the accident spot in Maharashtra’s Palghar district confirmed the worst fears: Poor maintenance, lack of adequate signage to guide drivers and over a dozen median openings in a 70-km stretch extending in either direction of the crash site. Mistry’s car had rammed into a divider.

publive-image NH48 Sidhrawali Flyover accident, near Kapriwas
towards Jaipur | Photo courtesy: TraffiGGM | Twitter

Fundamentals overlooked

It was clear that the fundamentals of road safety were overlooked. The low-cost preventive measures recommended by the Federation to avoid more such crashes were forthright: Install speed limit signs before road diversions and bridges; display warning signs when a road ahead narrows; close median openings; upgrade markings; boost maintenance…

Combined with notoriously unregulated vehicular speeds, the compromised system is a recipe for disaster. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that although State and National Highways constitute barely 5% of India’s total road network, they account for 52% of accidents. On an average, that comes down to 18 avoidable deaths every hour!

High vehicular speeds with high-speed limits are a fatal mix. “This isn’t surprising since speed determines the severity of crashes and injuries. There is a direct correlation between higher speeds, crash risk, and the severity of injuries,” reminds Nikita Luke, Senior Project Associate for Health and Road Safety at the WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities. 

“Higher speeds reduce drivers’ capacity to stop in time, make it harder for the driver to negotiate curves or corners, and cause others to misjudge the timing of approaching vehicles,” she notes. Studies confirm this. For every one per cent increase in speed, there is a 4% increase in fatal crashes. 

Managing speeds on highways and rural roads is a no-brainer. “Regulation increases the probability of survival in the case of a high-speed collision, keeping in mind the possibilities and types of crashes such as side-impact, head-on, and off-road crashes,” Nikita explains.

publive-image An increase in average speed is directly related both to the likelihood of a crash occurring and to the severity of the consequences of the crash. For example, every 1% increase in mean speed produces a 4% increase in the fatal crash risk and a 3% increase in the serious crash risk | Data: WHO 2022 | Source: Graphic by World Resources Institute

Serious design flaws  

Vast stretches of high-speed highways in the country are just not designed to mitigate the impact of a crash. Mandated are crash-absorbing barriers and appropriate traffic calming measures, elimination of black spots, special attention to horizontal and vertical curves, appropriate lane and shoulder widths, super-elevation, median width, curve radius, sight distance and more.  

“All our work shows there are a lot of design issues with the high-speed highways we are building today. For instance, the Yamuna Expressway, the Eastern Peripheral Expressway or the Agra Expressway,” says Prof Geetam Tiwari, who has done extensive research on road safety under the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Centre.

‘Forgiving’ roads  

The current safety philosophy, she says, “is to accept that drivers will make mistakes, and therefore we should design ‘forgiving roads’ that absorb this. All the geometric standards, the median design, and crash barriers should be done keeping that in mind. 

On high-speed roads, she says, the divider should not have high medians. “If the tyre of any vehicle speeding above 80 kmph hits the median, it will burst. The vehicle will continue at that speed, get lifted upward and rollover. The median has to be wide with a proper crash barrier,” she explains.  

Barriers, too, should follow a specific design. “There are rigid barriers and semi-rigid barriers, and if not done right, they could be hazardous. The ‘W’ beam barriers currently installed along highways are only good for cars, not for buses and trucks. When a vehicle hits the barrier, it should deflect a bit, absorbing the energy. Concrete barriers will transfer all that impact energy to the passengers, causing serious injuries.”  

Prof Tiwari finds it ‘baffling’ that the standards followed here are extremely poor in detailing. “Contractors don’t realise that these things are so important. The government always blames the drivers. Any international safety expert will tell you this is not correct reasoning. To a large extent, the driver’s behaviour is also influenced by how we design the road,” she says.

publive-image View of sign board indicating national highway 75 in India | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Vehicles’ road worthiness 

But beyond highway design and engineering, there are two critical areas where attention has waned: Lack of road worthiness of vehicles and safe driving behaviour, notes Dr Ashish Verma, Convener, Sustainable Transportation Lab at the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

“We have still not improved, in any way, measures to check the mechanical stability and road worthiness of vehicles, which is the transport department’s key responsibility. As for the driving licensing part, we are still deep down in corruption. Old practices have not changed,” Dr Verma points out. 

In Regional Transport Offices (RTOs) across the country, the heavily compromised system has been virtually taken over by touts. Inevitably, stringent vehicular inspections are bypassed before fitness certificates are issued. The entire driving licensing process is under the firm grip of agents. 

From an engineering perspective, he sees improved standard carriageways, road geometry, guard rails on the sides and mandatory safety audits as positives. “I am not saying they are the best. There is still scope for improvement. We can still see on highways, direct access to adjoining properties, people breaking medians.” 

Poor driving behaviour 

Despite skyrocketing accident figures, bad driving behaviour continues to endanger lives with hardly any law enforcement in sight. On the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, for instance, tractors are often seen getting onto the highway lane from service roads disorienting other vehicles. “People try to drive on the wrong side just to save some fuel. They have to be prevented either through proper road design or by focusing on safe driving behaviour,” suggests Dr Verma. 

publive-image Aerial view of highway in Delhi | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Design improvements that Dr Verma cited could be seen only on the newer, upgraded highways. The Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) data shows that about 40% of road accident fatalities occur on two-lane rural highways.

Risky, undivided highways

“Safety performance of two-lane highways is of significance in the country primarily due to relatively poor road geometry and inseparable traffic from two opposite directions, which results in a higher number of accidents with high severity,” notes a study anchored by IIT Kharagpur researchers Sudipa Chatterjee and Sudesha Mitra, and Partha Sarathi Bandyopadhyaya from the West Bengal government.

Based on a road safety audit conducted on NH 117 (running through Assam) and NH 60 (connecting Pune and Dhule in Maharashtra), the researchers found signs and markings missing in critical locations. “Lack of adequate sight distance was consistently observed in the horizontal curves and at the intersection approaches.” 

Since safety infrastructure was absent, it was seen that vulnerable road users were exposed to high-speed traffic at many locations. “Bus bays at the far side of the intersection, pedestrian crossing near schools and hospitals, high mast lamps near built-up areas and uncontrolled intersections etc., should be provided after a thorough study of the road environment,” the study recommended. 

Miscalculated over-takings 

Complications in ‘undivided highways’ are more, agrees Dr Verma. “Motorists try to dangerously overtake without maintaining a safe distance. They need to judge very well the vehicles coming from the opposite direction before overtaking. Accidents often occur due to a wrong calculation. And during nighttime, the headlight glare becomes an issue. Rain reduces the visibility further, and the surface becomes skid-prone.”  

These factors only amplify the risks associated with vehicles with poor roadworthiness. “Accidents happen many times due to tyre bursts or when the driver is unable to control them. This is due to poor, timely, and appropriate vehicle maintenance. All this comes to the fore when you are driving at high speeds on the highways,” he explains.  

By design, modern highways are access-controlled and flanked by service roads. But in undivided, two-lane highways, bus stops are made right along the motorway. The IIT researchers found this a dangerous trend, especially since the two highways they studied passed through densely built-up areas with a high number of bus commuters. “The buses in such highways drive at fast speeds to compete with other operators and make sudden and frequent stops to pick up passengers,” they observed.

Highway safety demands that inter-relationships between travel speed, road infrastructure design and road users are smartly managed. But on most undivided highways, speed limits or speed zones are rarely publicised through signages. “It is crucial to specify speed limits, especially near built-up areas, schools and markets. These limits are critical even in curved and straight segments with inadequate sight distance.”  

Failed crash tests

Lax speed limit enforcement implies the vehicles are at least robust enough to guarantee the safety of passengers. But most cars manufactured in India have repeatedly failed crash tests conducted by the global New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP), first launched in the United States. To get to the crash test ratings, a car is driven at 64kmph with a 40% overlap into a deformable barrier designed to mimic a crash between two vehicles of the same weight.

The ratings are derived from the injury readings on the driver and passenger dummies, the head and neck region, and the chest, knee, femur and pelvis regions in particular. If the dummies get a fatal impact, the rating drops to zero, and most Indian cars have not managed to get beyond this. Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari himself had referred to this anomaly, indicating how auto firms maintain different safety standards for cars made for India and for foreign markets.  

The message is clear: The whole metal body of the vehicle should be strong enough to take heavy impact and not pass on that kinetic force to the drivers and passengers.

Rear seat belts 

It took Mistry’s death for the government to mandate wearing seat belts even for the rear seat passengers. Safety experts note that had Mistry worn a seat belt, he might have survived with an injury. But this has been standard practice for years in several developed countries. Only in recent years have governments here forced car manufacturers to fit safety features such as Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), driver-side airbags and seat belt warnings. 

publive-image Graph depicting the potential fatalities without vehicle safety technologies | Credit: Graphic by World resources institute based on data from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

In 2020, the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme (BNVSAP) sought to achieve parity between Indian and global safety standards. Mandated were six airbags for vehicles with a capacity of up to eight passengers, an advanced emergency braking system, lane-keeping technology and intelligent speed assistance. But citing the high cost of integration with a potential to lower sales, automobile firms opposed the rules.

The rules also mandated that speed warning systems with alerts at two levels - above 80 kmph and beyond 120 kmph - are not turned off. The ABS had to be integrated into all new vehicles sold in the Indian market from April 2019.  

Relaxed policies  

Enforcement of rules has been poor because, as Dr Verma points out, the consumers do not demand it. “The policies are very relaxed. The consumers are either very reluctant to demand the safety features or are not aware. They may be ready to pay for fancy accessories but not for safety features. Safety as a culture is of low concern and priority in India. This is one reason why vehicle manufacturers take it lightly,” he says. 

Unlike highways, accident fatalities have seen a decline in the cities. M A Saleem, Additional Director General of Police (Administration), Karnataka, attributes this to increasing vehicular congestion that has reduced speeds. 

Intra-city trends 

“Over the last two decades, the accident rate in Bengaluru city and other cities nationwide has come down. Bengaluru used to record about 1,000 deaths between 2003 and 2004. It is now down to around 600,” he elaborates. A former Additional Commissioner of Police, Traffic, Saleem was, until recently, ADGP, Road Safety.

Most fatalities are now reported from access-controlled arterial roads heading out of the city. “Fatal accidents occur on the elevated section of Bengaluru’s Hosur Road and Airport Road stretches, not in the Central Business District (CBD) areas. In the Ashoknagar traffic police limits, not a single fatality was reported over the last six months,” Saleem informs.

Drunken driving and over-speeding do trigger a spike in fatalities. But the poor condition of roads contributes equally, and this applies to both inner city roads and highways. In 2021, potholes took 16 lives in 67 cases across Karnataka. While 23 of these accidents were in the Belagavi district, 15 were in Bengaluru city. Sleep deprivation and drunk driving only amplify the risks on highways. 

Speed governors

publive-image Enhancing safety depends on lowering vehicle speeds and reducing conflicts. Lower automobile speeds have been found to drastically lessen the risk of fatalities, and allows the driver to stop in time. | Source: World Resources Institute / Low Speed Zone Guide

To curb over-speeding, speed governors were mandated for all new transport vehicles in the country in 2015. The speed limit in school buses and goods vehicles carrying hazardous materials was fixed at 60 kmph. The rule exempted only vehicles attached to the police, fire department, ambulances and vehicles with up to six passenger seats, including the driver.  

Inevitably, opposition from multiple stakeholders forced the Centre to tweak these rules in 2018. On expressways, motor vehicles with nine seats were allowed to hit a maximum of 120 kmph, and 100 kmph on four-lane highways with medians. On undivided highways and other roads, the limit was increased to 70 kmph.  

Last year, the Madras High Court asked the Centre to reconsider these amendments. It ordered that speed governors be installed in all motor vehicles, including two-wheelers, right at the manufacturing stage. The Court observed that the speed limits were liberally increased for commercial reasons.

However, despite these stringent legal interventions, the speed governor rule has been repeatedly flouted. The gruesome Vadakkenchery accident in Kerala that killed nine, including five school students, was attributed to speed governor tampering. Besides the fatalities, 50 others were injured when a tourist bus rammed into a Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) bus. A probe by the Kerala Transport Commissioner found that the electronic speed control unit of the tourist bus was tampered with.

The United Nations declared 2010-2020 as the Decade of Action for Road Safety. The concerns were global, and human failings were a big factor. But the greatest untapped potential to prevent death and injury lay in the roads themselves. “By making roads more predictable, consistent and forgiving, we can produce a long-term solution that helps save lives and reduce injuries,” says one study. 

publive-image Desirable and undesirable highway road patterns | Source: Transport and Communications Bulletin for Asia and the Pacific

Global best practices  

Between 1980 and 2000, infrastructure upgrades and speed management measures reduced the number of fatalities by around a third in Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Taking the best practices from countries that turned the tide, researchers have collated several key elements of a standard, safe road infrastructure design. 

publive-image To prevent accidents, major arterial roads and expressways should bypass towns which should be connected by spurs. There should be clear zones identified for linear land use control. Consistency of horizontal geometry avoiding monotonous straight lines or abrupt change of speed is necessary | Source: Transport and Communications Bulletin for Asia and the Pacific

It is recommended that all major arterial roads and expressways bypass major towns, identifying clear zones for linear land use control. Consistency of horizontal geometry, avoiding monotonous straight lines or abrupt speed changes, is another key suggestion. 

Also important are adequate offset distance from natural roadside features, wider lane widths and shoulders for high-speed roads, inside widening for sharp curves, recoverable slopes for out-of-control vehicles and segregation of slow-moving non-motorized traffic from fast-moving traffic.


Rasheed Kappan is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru with nearly three decades of experience. In the past, he has worked in the Deccan Herald, The Hindu and The Times of India, covering issues related to urban mobility, sustainibility, environment and the interface between policy, planning and activation on the ground. A graphic cartoonist, he is the founder of Kappansky and explores the linkages of art, media and innovation through multiple creative platforms.