Along with tech and norms, India needs a safety culture too

by Rama Shankar Pandey, Hella India 06 May 2019


Rama Shankar Pandey, Managing Director, Hella India Lighting

Millions of Indians drive on roads and 405 of us never come back home, every day. Approximately 1,300 road users return injured every day, many times critically injured. And 29 children lose their lives every day on our roads. Road crashes are the biggest cause of unnatural deaths in our country. A UN report estimates the cost of traffic accidents at 3 percent of India’s GDP, which can be estimated at US$ 81 billion or Rs 565,000 crore in terms of value. At the same time, bad road behaviour and rampant breaking of traffic rules causes stress and loss of productivity to all road users, hurting commuters and impacting every Indian citizen. Add this to the estimated annual growth of 15 percent in traffic in India and road safety becomes a critical challenge for India.

If seen individually, road crashes are sudden and unpredictable. Collectively though, vehicle crashes, deaths and injuries are predictable and preventable. The government of India, specifically the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, is leading the vision setting in this regard and has targeted a goal to reduce road deaths by 50 percent by 2020, which seems an uphill task as the deadline is just a few months away and no major sign of reduction is visible. Focusing on the 4Es of road accident prevention, MoRTH has taken the initiative in Engineering, Education, Enforcement and Emergency Care.

In the domain of vehicle engineering, regulations around safer vehicles have gained maximum importance. In the words of Ajay Damle, who is leading the road safety initiatives at the Ministry, India will be soon at par with global standards with respect to both the safety and environment regulations’ road map. SIAM and ACMA members have worked hard to achieve these safety regulations, sometimes a lot ahead of time and a few vehicle manufacturers have improved their crash test rating to even GNCAP five-star levels. This shows that as an industry we are not only committed to reduce road deaths but we have taken many steps in the area of engineering and technology to ensure safer vehicles on the road.

However, we are yet to reap the fruits of these stringent regulations which unfortunately are only applicable till the vehicle leaves an OEM factory. India does not have an aftermarket standard for safer parts, safer fitments and not all vehicles are covered for periodic fitness certifications. Commercial vehicles are covered for periodic fitness certifications but a drive on any road across the country can reveal the poor condition of their active safety components.

Need for reliable accident data
With so many regulations coming every year, why is it that we haven’t yet been able to reduce the number of fatalities on Indian roads? Who is responsible for them and what needs to be done?

First and foremost, we need to provide a laser-sharp direction to India’s road safety mission by developing robust and reliable accident research data. Today, individual stakeholders are looking at the problem from their own perspective as individual solution providers. Though it is with good intent, we normally push our individual competency as a final answer to this complex problem; it’s bound to fail, as our diagnostic approach is neither comprehensive nor based on accurate data. The data collected by the police is neither timely nor diagnostically useful. We are missing both qualities of accident data — its granularity and consistency of numbers. There are only two ways to solve it  — we build a nationwide network of cross-functional teams, trained with global best practices and ensure that they reach the accident site speedily and collect forensic evidences before it is is lost.

This will need huge government investment and a relatively longer time to implement. Another approach can be to equip every car with vision and IoT technologies to record real-time accident data like a black box in aircraft, so that the accident scene can be reconstructed, and root cause analysis will lead to targeted interventions. This alternative seems faster and easier but commercially more challenging as it will need private investment by every vehicle owner. This is where a collaborative approach among industry partners and little support from the government can make it affordable for consumers. These connected and vision technologies deployed in cars can generate a huge amount of data which can be monetised by insurance companies, component and OE manufacturers and other service providers as per their agreement with the vehicle owner and the government can source critical accident research data at a relatively low spend. We at Hella are willing to join such consortiums for utilisation of vehicle user data to arrest the alarming number of road deaths. One good example of a shared business model to make it viable is how most of us are using Google Maps on a day-to-day basis.

Secondly, we should provide direction to our technology, regulations and enforcement road map with a ‘first-thing-first’ approach and balance the importance of active and passive safety equally. The safety cycle starts with visibility. We call it a cycle of Recognition (of traffic), Reaction (of the road user) and. Injury Avoidance (of all involved). Precaution is better than cure.

We create millions of opportunities for accidents in India by having unfavourable traffic situations and unpredictable recognition of traffic on our roads. We must prioritise solving all our issues in the recognition phase.

As India's per capita income is still on a lower side, affordability of technology is critical for its wide adoption and use. We must prioritise our technology road map. Even though we are able to bring all kinds of safety regulations when a vehicle is delivered, compliance falls down while it is in daily use. This is obvious when you see big trucks missing stop/tail- and signalling lamps, vehicles blinding you with glare when headlamps are not levelled. A laser-focus approach to solve all kinds of traffic recognition issues, be it visibility, lane and overtaking discipline, will greatly reduce the chances of creating an emergency situation on every kilometre.

Thirdly, the reasons for road accidents can be many but one surefire solution can be to become good drivers ourselves and create a culture of safe and defensive driving on our roads. “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” as Mahatma Gandhi said. India needs a second freedom struggle — freedom from all avoidable road deaths on our roads.

Revolution against bad drivers
In general, we find a private solution to most of our public problems, but the irony is that road accidents cannot be solved privately until we work together and till the last motorist on the road is not behaving safe, which means it needs nothing less than a well-coordinated public revolution against bad road behaviour. A vehicle equipped with all safety technology is as smart as the driver behind its wheels. Hence, the weak link of our complex problem is driver behaviour.

ACMA and SIAM with MoRTH, FADA, ASDC and many like-minded organisations are working on many of projects for driver training and general awareness but a strong collaborative platform is needed to scale it up and cover 100 percent of road users and shift focus from only creating awareness to self-enforcements. This collaborative platform must leverage available technologies in the domain of driving behaviour feedback, driver assistance and use them for real-time ‘Training Methods full of Gamification’ and use positive reinforcements to the public at large for improving their driving behaviour, to make a larger impact.

There are various ADAS technologies which can guide the driver in real-time and also provide feedback for real-time training. These technologies can be used to create a national standard of calculating safe driving practices as a comprehensive score and positively motivate consumers for driving safe.

(This column was first published in the April 15, 2019 issue of Autocar Professional)

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