Millennium Post

“Do anything to reduce vehicle speed inside cities”

How does India perform on road safety parameters?
If you consider deaths on the road per thousand persons, we are somewhere in the middle. South Africa, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Thailand do worse than India. There are rich countries that do badly. The death rate in the US is about the same as India.

The best road safety performance comes from Sweden, Japan, Norway, the UK and the Netherlands. China, on the other hand, may have numbers higher than us, because their numbers are not very reliable. Very few of us believe the numbers from China. Not that we have very good numbers in India.

Please give a few pointers on road safety.

Unfortunately, telling people what is correct has not done any good. That’s what our experience tells us. So I’d say people should force police and authorities to put speed breakers in their localities, anywhere and everywhere they walk, especially children. The number of people being hit even in residential areas is not small in India.

If you go to a hospital and spend some time there, you will see several cases of people hit by motorcycles inside residential areas. These injuries are not minor. Don’t forget, the acclaimed scientist Obaid Siddiqi died in 2013 after being hit by a moped outside his house. The real problem is not the people; it is the experts in the field.

Other ways to make roads safer?
Basically, anything that reduces speed inside the city, because our speeds are too high. New York City has just reduced its speed limits to about 40 kmph. But we still have newspapers like the Hindustan Times and The Times of India asking for an increase in the speed limit. It is almost compulsory to have speed-breakers every 80-200 metres on all roads near residential and shopping areas, schools. In IIT-Delhi, we used to have one accident of some kind every week on campus about 20 years ago. We tried everything, talking to the faculty, a campaign among the students, but nothing worked. So we built speed-breakers every 100 metres on every single road in the campus. Now we hardly have any accidents. We need different ways of controlling speed, if possible by design or by patrolling on the main road. You cannot have enough policemen for residential areas and minor roads. So there, you control speed by design. Make the road narrow, make turns sharp. We should not have smooth turns in the city, so that everyone has to slow down. Indian civil engineers still don’t know this so they still use designs from 60 years ago.

What are the design issues outside the city and inside?

All our highways have a raised median. That is not allowed by design in any civilised country in the world for the last 40 years. Because when you are going at a high speed and your tyre so much as touches that median by mistake, it disintegrates in a fraction of a second and the rim gets completely demolished.

The car climbs on the median, launches into space, turns, and falls on its roof. It is the same case with our sidewalks. So we are the only country in the world where cars overturn inside the city because of the design. You cannot have anything raised that high along a high-speed road. Such design issues don’t get discussed because they are not sexy enough. Talk of the number of traffic violations gets attention, talk of more strict punishment and more education, etc.

Will changing the licencing system reduce lawlessness on the road?
No. Only enforcement will change it. It is very easy to get driving licenses in so many countries. You go to Kampala in Uganda; they behave better on the roads than here. This clamour for better driving training is what they were saying in the US in the 1940s. But look at Kuwait, where licensing is much stricter than in India. It has a much higher death rate than India. These things are difficult to get across to the general public.

How do you see the public vehicle-vs-private vehicle debate?

We may be the only country – or one of the very few – where you pay lifetime road tax on a vehicle. Most countries have a yearly tax. In addition, in some cities employers have to pay the transportation tax. Some cities have a pollution tax. We are the least taxed in terms of private vehicles. In terms of commercial vehicles, I don’t know about trucks, but buses are taxed very unfairly. If you consider per km travel, the bus passenger pays more tax than a private car.

How do you view Delhi’s BRT experiment?

The idea of the BRT began in India before the BRT in Bogota in Colombia. It is not that we saw something, got excited and wanted to copy it in Delhi. We did a study and gave a report to the government in 1996 that suggested the BRT. The media picked it up and the then transport minister of Delhi, Rajendra Gupta, got interested and commissioned a study. Then the Congress government came in, and transport minister Ajay Maken caught on to the BRT idea immediately. He organised a conference in Delhi. There, the chief minister announced implementation of the BRT. A government committee recommended five BRT corridors. The selection of the first corridor was an administrative one – the bureaucrats wanted a route that involved the fewest number of administrative authorities.
Theoretically, there is no difference between trams (which are 120 years old) and a BRT corridor. Delhi is the only society I know of among about 400 cities where a well-designed and implemented BRT was subjected to such a negative public discussion.

We told the government several times to have an advertisement campaign, but the government did not back up its effort with a communications campaign so that citizens would know why the BRT was good for the city. There was no effort to build wider political support for it.

By arrangement with Governance Now

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