Mumbai: The twisted metal of smashed-up cars lining highways is a grim testament to India’s road toll, one of the worst in the world with around 100,000 people killed in traffic accidents last year alone.
Overburdened infrastructure: Vehicles on a busy Mumbai road. As incomes rise and the economy expands, a growing number of vehicles are hitting roads that were never designed for such massive traffic. Annual passenger vehicle sales in India is expected to touch two million units by 2010. Photograph: Punit Paranjpe / Reuters
As incomes rise and the economy rapidly expands, new cars and trucks pour onto Indian roads at an ever increasing pace, squeezing into narrow, congested streets that were never designed for such a massive flow of traffic.
Creaking infrastructure, poorly trained drivers and cars that lack basic safety features due to a preference for cheap, fuel-efficient vehicles by Indian motorists are causing an already horrendous road toll to balloon.
And the toll is not just human. The World Bank estimates that every year road accidents cost India about 3% of its gross domestic product, which was over $1 trillion (about Rs44 trillion) in 2007.
“We’re talking about a very serious issue here that also has huge economic implications,” said Rajesh Rohatgi, a transport specialist at the World Bank in New Delhi.
Road accidents could become the No. 3 public health issue in the country by 2020, overtaking such deadly diseases as tuberculosis and AIDS, the World Bank predicts.
In India, with roads carrying almost 90% of all passenger traffic and 65% of its freight, the mortality rate per 10,000 vehicles is 14 compared with less than two for developed countries, the World Bank estimates.
It is easy to see why: Cars and motorbikes share space on narrow roads with bicycles, rickshaws, trucks, buses, the odd bullock cart and pedestrians forced to walk in roads by hawkers on pavements.
Potholed roads, inadequate safety regulations, a scrappy licence system and a lax attitude towards drunk and underage driving are all blamed for accidents that kill an estimated 275 people every day.
But the biggest killer is arguably the growing numbers of vehicles hitting Indian roads every year, steered by drivers who lack basic motor skills and driving on roads that are incapable of supporting the massive volume of traffic.
Global death toll
It’s a problem that is being seen in other developing countries with booming economies that are making cars affordable to the masses.
The World Bank estimates that the number of deaths from car accidents globally will rise to two million per year by 2020 from 1.2 million unless driving skills are taught and road laws are enforced.
In India, the transport ministry estimates the number of annual road fatalities might climb to 150,000 by 2015 due to the rapid growth of vehicle ownership.
Annual sales of passenger vehicles in India will double to two million units by 2010 and sales of commercial vehicles may more than double to one million units in Asia’s third largest economy.
Vehicle ownership has risen at an average rate of about 15% a year over the last decade, but road maintenance is under-funded, with only about a third of road needs being met.
The government plans to spend more than $500 billion over the next five years to upgrade its roads, ports, airports, and other creaky and inadequate infrastructure.
But often not all the money that is earmarked for a project actually gets there due to corruption and poor governance.
The result is substandard construction and poor road maintenance.
While loopholes in the system put licences in the hands of those ill-equipped to drive, there is also a general apathy among consumers towards seat belts, air bags and even motorcycle helmets.
“Safety is unfortunately not a big part of the purchase decision of Indian consumers,” said Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of the popular Autocar magazine.
“Our best-selling small cars are typically not the safest vehicles on the road, because consumers are more worried about fuel efficiency and the cost of ownership, and would rather not pay for safety features such as air bags and anti-lock brakes.”
Vehicle makers are trying to fill the breach left by the government by setting up their own driver training schools.
“We do believe the need for training is becoming increasingly relevant,” said Debasis Ray, head of corporate communications at Tata Motors Ltd, India’s leading vehicle manufacturer.
Top car maker Maruti Suzuki India Ltd manages two training schools in New Delhi with the state transport department. It has evaluated more than 400,000 clients, mostly commercial vehicle drivers, a spokesman said.
Ford Motor Co. is customizing its US-based teen-focused Driving Skills for Life programme for drivers in developing auto markets including Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Hyundai Motor Co. has a student traffic volunteers scheme in New Delhi and Chennai, while Tata Motors, the top bus and truck maker, trains commercial vehicle drivers.
Courses for truck drivers are seen as crucial as a lack of trained heavy-vehicle drivers may literally be holding back business activity in India as a scarcity of truck drivers hampers the transport of goods across the vast country.
“Transporters also want drivers for commercial vehicles, where the need for training is perhaps most acute,” said Mohit Arora, managing director for India at auto research firm JD Power Asia-Pacific Inc.