From risk to resilience: navigating road safety in India

The auto industry, a key stakeholder in ensuring safety of motorists, is taking strides to promote safety of all road users. It is a collective effort and involves all partners.

By Mayank Dhingra calendar 11 Jun 2023 Views icon3786 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp

Road accidents have substantial economic implications with potential loss of lives and property leading to financial burdens on the society. Nearly 1.3 million preventable deaths and an estimated 50 million injuries occur every year on the roads globally, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Road crashes are therefore among the biggest killers worldwide and these statistics have remained largely unchanged for the last two decades, despite the painstaking work of governments, the industry and NGOs the world over.

As things stand, the WHO has hinted that a further 13 million deaths and 500 million injuries are likely to occur by the end of this decade and hinder sustainable development, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

Recognising the importance of the problem and the need to act, governments from around the world declared unanimously through UN General Assembly Resolution 74/299 — a Second Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021–2030 — with the explicit target to reduce road deaths and injuries by at least 50 percent during that period.

The second edition of the UN Global Road Safety Week that was held last month with the theme — ‘#RethinkMobility’ — focused on sustainable transportation, in particular the need to shift towards walking, cycling, and using public transport, and therefore, relied greater emphasis on road safety measures to ensure the safety of all road users.

Meanwhile, back home, the transport ministry data suggests that at least one person dies every three minutes on Indian roads, and the usual suspects — such as over speeding, drunken driving, wrong-side driving, and failing to wear a seat belt or a helmet — along with bad road planning and potholes, are coming out as major contributors.

The rising number of road accidents — 4,12,432 overall and the resulting 1,53,972 deaths — a spike of 16.9 percent during 2021 over the previous year comes out as a cause for concern at a time when the Indian government has been raising vehicle safety by regulatory push for active and passive safety technologies, as well as projects such as the Bharat New Car Assessment Programme (BNCAP) that aim to evaluate vehicles on the basis of their crash performance.

On the other hand, China, which ranks second with 2,44,937 accidents, had 63,194 fatalities in 2018, while the United States, which has the world's largest road network, reported 19,27,654 accidents, though the number of fatalities remained much lower at 36,560, according to the latest available data from the International Road Federation, Geneva.

Road safety enhancement requires a multi-dimensional approach, encompassing all aspects, starting with driver education, road engineering, traffic law enforcement, and setting up of a robust emergency response ecosystem. With an urgent need for stepped up efforts, the WHO’s Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021- 2030 prioritises an integrated ‘Safe System’ approach, aimed to squarely position road safety as a key driver of sustainable development.

Strengthening education, engineering, enforcement
The ‘Safe Systems’ approach includes a safe road environment, safe vehicles driving at safe speeds. Investing in the development of robust road infrastructure is crucial to improving road safety, and this includes expanding and upgrading highways — an activity which has seen massive strides in India over the last five years, along with the roll out of regulatory push by the government to enhance vehicle safety.

Implementation of effective urban planning to ease congestion, construction of pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, and enhancement of the quality of road surfaces, along with installation of proper signage, ensuring well-marked lanes, and incorporating intelligent transportation systems, are areas which can significantly contribute to reducing accidents and improving traffic flow in the country.

Part of infrastructure is the emergency response system, which is essential to reduce fatalities and includes improving ambulance services, establishing trauma care centres near highways, and training first responders. These actions can significantly minimise the time between an accident and medical assistance, increasing the chances of saving lives.

Creating a culture of road safety also requires a robust and perpetual public awareness campaign, which includes educating drivers, pedestrians and passengers about safe practices, emphasising the importance of seatbelt usage, helmet enforcement, and discouraging drunk driving. It is here when the role of the society broadens, and independent activists, non-governmental organisations, and private sector partnerships can help amplify the reach and impact of such initiatives.

Going hand in hand with education is the stricter enforcement of traffic rules. Authorities must strengthen traffic police presence, particularly in high-risk areas, and implement automated surveillance systems to detect and penalise traffic violations effectively. While the national capital — Delhi — is a great example of how the amalgamation of technology and human resources can reduce traffic violations, and elevate road safety. Additionally, updating and enforcing regulations related to vehicle standards, driver licensing, and roadworthiness are areas that need focus to ensure that only safe vehicles and qualified drivers are on the roads.

Safety advancements in vehicles in India
Over the past decade, the Indian automotive industry has witnessed significant improvements in vehicle safety. As manufacturers and regulatory bodies recognise the importance of prioritising safety, several notable advancements have been made in vehicle design, safety features, and crashworthiness. One of the significant improvements in Indian cars' safety is the focus on enhanced structural integrity. Car manufacturers have incorporated advanced materials, such as high-strength steel in their vehicle designs to improve crashworthiness, which has resulted in stronger safety cages that provide better protection to occupants during collisions.

In fact, many car models from not just global but Indian-headquartered OEMs as well, have aced the Global NCAP crash tests with full five-star rating in the recent past. The adoption of crash simulation technologies and improved engineering practices has also played a pivotal role in enhancing structural integrity in vehicles.

Moreover, the advancements in safety regulations and consumer demand have led to the widespread adoption of features such as dual front airbags, anti-lock braking systems (ABS), front seat belt reminders, and rear parking sensors across car categories. The two-wheeler segment has seen a regulatory push such as mandatory ABS and CBS, while commercial vehicles are being governed by the cabin and body safety norms. This has significantly improved occupant and pedestrian protection and reduced the risk of injuries in case of accidents.

While the implementation of active safety features such as electronic stability control (ESC) is gaining pace in the country, as a next step, there has been a notable rise in the adoption of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) in Indian cars. The technology promises ample results in commercial vehicles as well. Features like adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, and automatic emergency braking systems have been introduced in some higher-end models. These technologies assist drivers in avoiding potential collisions and provide an additional layer of safety, while the ambitious full-autonomous driving technology could perhaps be considered to eliminate human error on the roads. The holistic efforts in enhancing vehicle safety is coming not just from OEMs, but also from their allied partners — technology and component suppliers. Global engineering talent is driving Tier-I majors to develop and fine-tune vehicle safety systems. They are making continued progress in innovating solutions that enhance vehicle and road safety.

In a nutshell, safety is an all-encompassing subject that applies to various aspects of life. While significant advancements are being done from a road safety perspective, the journey to zero accidents and fatalities is a long way to go. However, the automotive industry, along with its key stakeholders, around the world, is diligently putting efforts to elevate safety, with an unabated zeal to safeguard life.

This feature was first published in Autocar Professional's June 1, 2023 issue.

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