Jeya Padmanaban: ‘Almost 40 to 100 percent of Indian roads are accident prone’

by Amit Panday Jun 10, 2018

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Jeya Padmanabhan, president and founder of JP Research

The president and founder of JP Research, which is a forerunner in the area of crash investigation, vehicle inspection and injury analysis to improve road safety in India, speaks on the importance of real-world accident data, the science behind road engineering design and other critical aspects hidden in the realm of road safety. 

It has been nearly a decade of JP Research’s existence globally and in India. How tough has it been for you to set up operations, get access to the accident sites and gather necessary data for vehicle crash analysis?

I would say it has been a very productive and rewarding journey. When we started, we basically wanted to create awareness and let people know that the roads (and the vehicles) have to be safer as people are dying, there are a lot of fatalities and injuries happening on our roads, just like any other country.

There is a whole science involved behind investigating road crashes, finding out why crashes occur, what types of remedies the scientific community can come up with to reduce and to mitigate the injuries and fatalities on Indian roads. That was the concept for India. It is a discipline in the West wherein we carry out vehicle damage assessment and injury analysis. In the developed western countries, people are already doing a lot of research in this area and are trying to come up with new safety features to protect occupants and pedestrians.

Ten years ago in India, everybody was focused on manufacturing. We still are largely a two- and three-wheeler country. The (road traffic) environment in India, however, is much more complex when compared to the developed nations. When we began our operations in India, our idea was that we go to the stakeholders that included the government organisations and the OEMs who had come to India from the western world and who know what crash investigation really is.

We went to Chennai and approached a few government officials (police administration) to get access to the accident site upon notification and be allowed to study the vehicle and the scene. I grew up here and can speak Tamil, which was one of the very useful things that contributed to our initial breakthrough. When we spoke to them about our vision, we found that they were very open-minded.

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JP Research's suggestions from its crash investigations on many accidents that occurred on the Pune-Mumbai expressway have substantially reduced the injuries and fatalities over the years. 

From that first meeting to where we are today, a lot has to do with the team working in India. We wanted to get people on board who were equally passionate about what we are doing and also that they understand how important this subject is for this country.

That’s how we started. Then we had Bosch, which reached out to us to do a small study on this topic. We started this as a pilot project, which was executed in Coimbatore. By then we had picked up Coimbatore as the place to start up our operations. There was a stretch on NH 47 between Coimbatore and Salem, which used to be a two-lane, undivided road with too many merging lanes on both sides. This stretch on this highway recorded a very high number of accidents in Tamil Nadu.

I recall Tamil Nadu stood out as one of the states with maximum road accidents in India (in 2008-10). So we began our operations there and started collecting data scientifically. Our first branch was opened there and is still the headquarters in India.

Under the said pilot project (for Bosch), we did basic analysis of crash investigation, vehicle inspection and injury analysis. We got some good results and they liked it a lot. After that, we began talking to vehicle manufacturers such as Nissan, Renault, Mercedes-Benz and others.

Later, we expanded our footprint with Pune being the second location for us in India. In Pune, we repeated the same model that worked in Coimbatore. What we do does not include any conflict of interest. We focused on collecting scientific data and formed a consortium (of OEMs and component suppliers), which is very similar to how things are done in the developed nations. The consortium funds the research. This research is the fundamental data that was used in all the western countries to come up with safety mandates such as the introduction of seatbelts, strengthening of the vehicle structure and others.

While the OEMs and the component suppliers can look at the data individually (to derive potential design changes in their products), the government can look at it collectively. For example, a significant portion of all accidents in India are rear-end accidents. So, relevant solutions can be mulled over. We have to have homegrown solutions for a lot of these problems.

Later we opened branches in Ahmedabad and Kolkata. We have recently opened our fifth office in India in Jaipur. Every region has its own challenges.

Nevertheless, the idea is not about how many branches we open; instead, it is about how many cases we have studied. We now have a database of more than 3,000 accident cases.

How has the level of JP Research’s engagement evolved with the various state governments in India over time?

The more these officials are learning about our reports, the more they are approaching us. We are in constant touch with the state governments of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Rajasthan and West Bengal have shown interest in our work. The government officials in Rajasthan approached us to provide training to the police force. In West Bengal, we found out that the road infrastructure (in Kolkata) is a bigger problem than just the vehicles. Kolkata’s road infrastructure lacks proper pavement for pedestrians, which is a big solution for that city.

We try to meet the state government officials regularly. We are also trying to meet the central government officials. There are a lot of conferences where we go and make presentations on what we have learnt in these regions. We talk about what our data analysis indicates and what are the solutions to curb road accidents and injuries. There is a constant stream of trainings, presentations, sharing of resources with all the government officials who are asking for it. This process takes time. Once they will learn what we are trying to do, we may not have to convince them
on this.

Then there are policy makers that also includes ARAI. We are constantly talking to them on how we can help them. This has to follow a multi-pronged approach.

Mr Nitin Gadkari and his cabinet have been very active in pushing major reforms in the automotive industry including key safety norms. His ministry also has very aggressive plans of expanding the road infrastructure across the country. What is your perspective on how things are progressing on the road safety front?

Bosch did quite a lot of research on ABS based on the data. Hopefully, the key government organisations such as the NATRiP have understood what was behind the analysis that they did. Although I don’t know about the internal developments at NATRIP, what we are seeing is that at least they are willing to talk to us, we make presentations to them, and I think they are starting to understand the importance of data analysis of road accidents.

With every new government at the centre, it takes a lot of time to understand the priorities. We do see the momentum. I understand that they are looking at a lot of things currently. So I think the data analytics will come once they solve most of their priorities. But we try to be present in every road safety- related conference that they organise and make efforts to highlight the importance of data analytics.

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Jeya Padmanaban: "We try to be present in every road-safety related conference that the government organises and make efforts to highlight the importance of data analytics." 

It is more likely that NATRIP is now beginning to understand what we are trying to achieve. So some of the high-level officials are starting to have a dialogue with us, which I think is very encouraging. They are asking for proposals, trainings and demonstrations. It seems that they have done some projects earlier and they have realised that they have gaps, and they are trying to fill those gaps with us. This is a starting point. I have observed that with this government, once they decide on something, they move very fast. This is very good. So I think they are heading in the right direction.

How many companies are currently part of the RASSI consortium?

We have around 11-12 companies in the RASSI consortium currently. These are Nissan, Renault, Bosch, Autoliv, Honda, Maruti Suzuki, Tata Motors, Mahindra & Mahindra, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Toyota and JP Research.

Why aren’t two-wheeler manufacturers in the RASSI consortium?

We are targeting to have them on board too. I agree when we talk about road safety in India, we have to look at the entire spectrum, which largely consists of the two-wheeler population in this country. We are constantly trying to get some of them in the consortium.

What is your outlook on safer road designs? Do you think roads built in India are designed appropriately keeping safety a priority?

In addition to the crash investigation, data analytics and vehicle inspection, we are now branching out to road safety audits. We believe that’s another piece of the possibility that we have to put together with the data collection and the injury analysis. We can actually use the data to suggest the right road designs.

From the crash data, we realised what are the other areas that we need to branch off to help in road safety. We have realised that while the government says that only two percent of Indian roads were creating accidents, our data shows that it can range from 40 percent to 100 percent in a city like Kolkata, where people don’t have basic footpaths for pedestrians and proper road crossing sections.

For example, on the Pune-Mumbai Expressway, we were able to use the data and say that the run-off road crashes are a lot. Basically if there are no guardrails on the side of the road and if you have concrete structures, when a vehicle hits these, the chances of survival are very low. In this case, we were able to work on the apt guardrail run-out length, which means how far the guardrail should come forward in front of that object so that the distance between the two protects the car from hitting the object. Such basics have reduced the fatalities by 14 percent in just one year.

These are basic things that the road engineers do. These are being done but not being done with a scientific thought process  – why the guardrail should be placed at 65 metres and not at 30 metres, based on the collected data.

Similarly, you need to place the entry/exit signs on an expressway much before the actual turn to ensure safe vehicular movements. The design of the entry/exit ramps into/off the highway is also very critical. Then there are gaps in the median allowing vehicles to take a U-turn. On the contrary, we should have a separate lane for vehicles taking a U-turn to avoid mishaps.

From the infrastructure point of view, things have improved quite a lot on the Pune-Mumbai Expressway. What was learnt from that expressway is now implemented on the Mumbai-Nagpur expressway.

These are the reasons why we are connecting with road safety engineering. Vehicles, road users and road design – all have to go hand-in-hand for maximum impact. I am hoping that the government looks at it with a similar mindset rather than different departments. This has to be looked at as a common problem for all the groups so that appropriate standards can be harmonised.

What are your top priorities for India?

We always would like to have more cases, and more branches, so that we can reach out to more organisations and more people with our ever-increasing database representing accident cases happening in this region. This will help identify what is happening where and how to localise solutions.

Secondly, we are working on establishing connect between road safety structures, civil engineering, road designs with accident outcomes and injuries. We are evaluating if we can offer solutions from the road safety engineering side too.

Thirdly, this has been going on forever but we still want to ensure an increase in the usage of helmets among two-wheeler riders and seatbelt usage among car drivers in the country. These things have to become a habit by default among the people in India to make proper impact.

Lastly, and most importantly, we would like to increase our engagement with the government organisations in terms of extrapolating the scientific data for solutions for the whole nation.

One of the things that the Indian government needs to do is to improve the data collection efforts and the quality of data that is being produced at the centre. This is where we want to engage with them and improve their data collection efforts and the quality of the data so that it becomes much more reliable for the entire nation.

These insights can be used by the manufacturers, road engineers and the people to understand and reduce injuries and fatalities.

 

(This interview was first published in the 15 May 2018 issue of Autocar Professional)

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