India’s roads are a paradox. They represent an enormous and growing opportunity to commute and connect, to transport and travel. They go hand in hand with the country’s modernisation and impressive economic progress. In this context, India has some of the greatest opportunities to build a strong road safety management framework, with strong helmet producers, car manufacturers, big tech and large road investments. And yet, as in many countries, they are also the source of a silent but deadly pandemic.
Each year, a staggering 3,00,000 people are estimated to be killed on the road in India, according to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO). That is equivalent to more than 34 people every hour of every day. And that is a conservative estimate. The number of people suffering life-altering injuries in road crashes is exponentially higher even than that. Beyond human suffering, there is a serious economic toll: In India, road crashes are estimated to cost between 5% and 7% of national GDP.
India, and the wider region in which it sits, is far from alone. Road safety is a global problem, with 1.3 million people killed in road crashes every year. But almost one in every four road deaths around the world takes place in India.
World Day of Remembrance
As the planet commemorated the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims on November 19 to provide a platform for road traffic victims and their families to remember, support and act, such figures should serve as a wake-up call to all of us. We need immediate, coordinated and evidence-based interventions to boost road safety and drastically reduce the daily human tragedies behind the alarming statistics.
This will require strategic investments in road safety measures, concerted political will at the national, State and local levels, and a change of collective mindset — after all, every one of us is a road user in some way — to understand and tackle the scale and importance of the challenge. Last week, the Government released a report that 2022 was the most fatal year for traffic crashes in India.
Focus areas for better safety
Priority areas must include enforcing the use of seatbelts not just for drivers but also for their passengers. Wearing a seatbelt reduces the risk of death among drivers and front-seat occupants by 45% to 50%, and the risk of death and serious injuries among rear-seat occupants by 25%. Similarly, helmet use must be enforced among motorcyclists as well as their pillion passengers. Correct helmet use can lead to a 42% reduction in the risk of fatal injuries.
Indeed, vulnerable road users, who include pedestrians, cyclists and the riders of two-wheelers, account for almost three quarters of road deaths in India. And passengers unbelted in the back seat are not only risks to themselves upon impact but also to those in the front seat.
Speeding must be reduced and there can be no tolerance for drink-driving; a recent report by the Government revealed that speeding led to 70% of India’s road crash deaths. Road infrastructure should be enhanced — too many roads are not in a safe condition, although government programmes in recent years have led to rapid improvements — and large-scale public awareness campaigns such as the new UN global campaign for road safety #MakeASafetyStatement, involving international celebrities, must be undertaken to secure behavioural changes.
The call to action is not new. The Sustainable Development Goals, created in 2015, include a target (3.6) to halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road crashes and a call (11.2) to make public transport safer, more affordable and more accessible to all.
The good news is that we are already seeing steps in the right direction in India. The national government’s implementation of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, and enhanced data collection from road crashes, are impactful measures that will help experts better understand where and why crashes are occurring, and, therefore, how to reduce them.
The UN helmet
Police in the major cities, such as the capital, New Delhi, are adopting modern technologies such as intelligent traffic management systems to effectively regulate traffic flows in a much better way and minimise the potential for collision. To help increase access to safe helmets, the Special Envoy has worked with helmet producers to produce a low-cost ventilated United Nations standard helmet, for under $20, including here in India.
Private sector companies are searching for solutions. This is only right: we cannot expect to succeed if we do not have a whole-of-society effort to improve road safety. But we are still only at the start of the journey. Your chances of surviving a road crash can vary enormously depending on what State you live in and what access you have to high-quality emergency care services and proper after-care.
We also need to look increasingly at international best practices and successes and then adapt them to India’s specific needs and circumstances.
Road safety is a complex and multi-dimensional challenge, but the benefits that come with addressing it can be equally profound. What we need is a comprehensive safe-system approach as envisaged in the UN’s the Second Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030, and full implementation of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019.
Ending the silent pandemic of road injuries will not only save lives but also strengthen the economy and improve the quality of life for everyone.
Jean Todt is the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety. Shombi Sharp is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in India. Roderico Ofrin is the United Nations World Health Organization Representative to India