The tragic death of Indian billionaire and industrialist Cyrus Mistry in a car accident on Sunday (Sept 4) has once again highlighted the dangers of driving on India’s roads, where tens of thousands of people die each year.
Mistry, 54, was travelling to Mumbai from Gujarat with three others when his Mercedes-Benz SUV rammed into the divider on a bridge over the Surya river in Maharashtra’s Palghar.
According to a senior Mumbai police official, the area is “highly prone” to accidents because three lanes merge into two.
“We see three-to-four major accidents every year here and it may be declared as a ‘black spot’ soon to warn future drivers,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
With a mere 1 per cent of the world’s vehicles, India accounts for about 10 per cent of all crash-related deaths, according to the World Bank . A record 155,000 people were killed in road accidents in 2021, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data.
That averages out to 426 daily fatalities or 18 deaths every single hour. A third of India’s crashes take place on its national highways such as the one Mistry was travelling on. In 2021 alone, 53,615 people died on these highways.
Besides the fatalities, 371,000 people were also injured in 403,000 road accidents’ across the country last year, showed an NCRB study titled Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India 2021.
Most accidents are attributed to negligence and driving too fast. Speeding caused 87,000 deaths, accounting for more than half of all fatalities, while dangerous and careless driving was attributed as the cause in 42,000 deaths.
Given these statistics, it is hardly surprising that Indian roads have the dubious distinction of being among the most dangerous in the world. In the first five months of 2022, capital city New Delhi witnessed 2,300 accidents leading to more than 500 deaths according to official data.
Before Mistry, several prominent Indians also lost their lives in car accidents, including former President Giani Zail Singh, senior minister of the ruling BJP party Gopinath Munde and popular comedian Jaspal Bhatti.
Experts say an emphasis on road safety education and awareness campaigns, as well as greater community involvement are urgently required.
Activists say the biggest problem among Indian drivers is non-compliance of safety rules resulting in speeding, not wearing seat belts/helmets and drinking while driving.
As per police investigations, Mistry was also not buckled up in his rear seat — which is against the law, and subject to a fine of about US$13 (S$17).
That seems to be a national trend, as a 2019 survey by the SaveLIFE Foundation found, only 7 per cent of respondents confirmed wearing seat belts with most unaware such a law even existed.
What India urgently needs, according to Jagdish Mishra, former deputy manager with Central Road Research Institute, New Delhi, is a combination of stronger law enforcement, public education, and more investment in safer roads.
He said car manufacturers can play a role by being more accepting in installing all safety features including airbags for rear passengers.
“Strong and sustainable measures that address the issue holistically are required. It’s not enough to just carry out sporadic public awareness campaigns on road safety. Systemic changes that create an institutional framework to enforce laws are important,” said Mishra.
Among other suggestions, experts quote conducting more stringent exams and practical tests for driving licenses as well as inclusion of road safety lessons in the school curriculum. Better road design, maintenance and signage can also help prevent accidents, said Delhi based civil engineer Deepak Thakur.
“The wearing of seat belts and helmets should be ensured through proper enforcement, punishment and education,” he added. “The Motor Vehicles Act carries strict penal action to deter people from committing traffic offences and driving rashly. But it is not enforced properly on a national level.”
Auto experts say the country should take a page out of China’s playbook.
India’s neighbour has some of the highest investment in physical infrastructure in the world, leading to the construction of new cities, high-speed rail lines, airports and ports while India is still seen as grappling with “Third World” road conditions, these observers say.
The Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi had committed itself to making infrastructure a top priority when it took over in 2014.
However, many of those plans are yet to materialise due to sundry bottlenecks including a suboptimal investment in physical infrastructure of 3.6 per cent of its GDP compared with China’s 9 per cent.