On highway to catastrophe
Of course the Yamuna Expressway drastically reduces travel time between Delhi and Agra, but it is also quickly reducing the gap between joy of driving and tragedy of death. The 165 km long expressway connecting Greater Noida to the outskirts of Agra has so far witnessed 27 major accidents, ending 50 lives and crippling dozens.
There is no central agency to maintain records of the number of death on the expressway. Even as Millennium Post was compiling the toll list from various sources, news came in of the 48th death, that of a police constable , who was killed in an accident on Yamuna Expressway near Tappal, on the borders of Greater Noida. The expressway had been opened to public approximately a year back on 9 August 2012, with promises of safe and swift journey but met with its first major accident within three days - five engineering students of a private institute in Greater Noida had been seriously injured as their car turned turtle.
The first fatality was reported within a week, as a commuter died on the expressway near Mathura, when the tyre of his car burst, causing the vehicle to overturn. The reasons behind the accidents are mostly over-speeding, tyre burst, drunken driving and broken down stationary vehicles. But these are cases which are reported in media. According to sources, over 300 people have lost their lives on this stretch since the expressway was opened.
‘These accidents are caused by lack of traffic sense among Indians. Every day hundreds of foreign tourists take the expressway to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra. But not a single foreigner has met with an accident here,’ said Askari H Zaidi, spokesperson of Jaypee Group, the company that constructed and is managing the expressway. ‘We have put up boards to caution commuters against over-speeding, requesting focussed driving, checking the condition of their vehicles, particularly tyres, before driving on expressway, but even then most commuters don’t follow the guidelines and meet with accidents,’ he added.
The expressway is under complete CCTV surveillance, there are barricades on both sides of the road, screens for traffic and weather advisory, and equipped with emergency call boxes at every two kilometres on both the sides. 'The entire corridor has been equipped with state of the art highway traffic management systems and intelligent traffic management systems,' explains Zaidi. There is also a central control room. In case of an emergency, there are six cranes to remove damaged vehicles. Six ambulances and six firefighters have been deployed for the entire stretch.
The managing company also claims to have organised an awareness campaign on overheating of tyres and safe driving, but are these efforts sufficient to make commuting safe? 'Police presence is not sufficient on the expressway, which makes it difficult to prosecute rash drivers guilty of over-speeding. Everything should not be left to private companies. The government must constitute a highway police team for patrolling on this stretch and the managing company must provide more infrastructure like ambulances and cranes to them,' said Dushyant Nagar, a farmer leader in the area.
According to PK Sikdar, former director of Central Road Research Institute, 'The cement concrete road on the expressway coupled with the high speed of the vehicle causes tyres to burst. Commuters should keep the speed of their cars within the permissible limit.' His view is echoed by SP Singh, convenor of All India Tyre Dealers Association, 'Optimum air pressure in tyres and balanced speed is a must for driving on such stretches.'
The expressway passes through five districts in Uttar Pradesh - Gautam Buddha (GB) Nagar, Aligarh, Hathras, Mathura and Agra, but there are only three police booths at the three toll plazas managed by GB Nagar, Aligarh and Mathura police. Areas under the jurisdiction of the other two districts is almost without policing.
'Police duty at these booths is not regular as officials are transferred without replacement which affects policing,' said Nagar. He also complained that five patrolling vehicles provided by the company exclusively for patrolling on the expressway are used for other purposes.
'I have deployed one sub-inspector and four constables round the clock on the expressway for prosecuting those indulging in rash and negligent driving and also to take care of accident victims,' said Preetinder Pal Singh, senior superintendent of police, GB Nagar. Singh also informed that a proposal to create exclusive 'highway patrolling police' is being considered by the state government but nobody knows how many lives the expressway will claim before the state government wakes up to the need to make travel safer.