High-speed highways at what cost?
Is Nitin Gadkari's fascination for building high-speed highways and speedier road travel matched by an equal concern for road safety? The data tell a different story
Nitin Gadkari recently shared his dream of making the road journey from Delhi to Mumbai’s Nariman Point in 12 hours. A few days later in an Instagram post, the minister wrote in glowing terms about the access-controlled eight-lane expressway being built to connect Mumbai with Delhi via Vadodara. Under the visionary leadership of the Prime Minister, he added, better and safer road connectivity was being assured.
For context, only about 10 per cent Indian households own cars though the number of registered vehicles is far more than the carrying capacity of our roads. Experts also point out that the number of registered vehicles is not a reliable measure of the number of vehicles on our roads.
Is the minister’s fascination for building high-speed highways and speedier road travel matched by an equal concern for road safety?
A majority (68%) of those who get killed on highways in India are pedestrians and cyclists. While the minister’s own department puts the number of pedestrians dying in road accidents at 17 per cent, most other studies estimate that number between 30 and 35 per cent.
Other studies have shown that our highways need to be designed better to ensure the safety of slow-moving vehicles and pedestrians. Pedestrians, these studies show, get killed either trying to go across to the other side or because they have to come to the highway to board public transport.
Even more curiously, the Status of Road Safety Report, 2021 prepared by IIT Delhi, states: ‘National highways including expressways comprise only 2 per cent of the total road length in India but account for 36 per cent of fatalities. Fatality per kilometre of road is highest on national highways with 0.67 deaths per kilometre a year and this fact should be the guiding factor in future design considerations.’
‘Expressways in the country had a total length of only 1,000 kilometres in 2014, but a high death rate of 1.8 per kilometre per year. This should be a cause for concern,’ adds the report, also pointing out that the fatality of ‘vulnerable road users’ is a lot lower in high-income countries.
The laning of highways is justified on the ground that it will reduce accidents, the report states, but the fact that this is not the case possibly indicates that laning, by itself, cannot change highway driving behaviour and, by extension, the number of accidents or fatalities.
On top of this, data shared by the road transport and highways ministry has been found to be unreliable. While numbers reported to the police of deaths on highways are reasonably accurate, government statistics of non-fatal injuries are gross underestimates, the report finds.
For example, while the government put the number of non-fatal injuries in road accidents at 450,000 in 2019, the Global Road Safety Facility, a World Bank agency, estimated serious injuries alone requiring hospitalisation in 2016 to have been 4.4 million. The number of injuries that required visits to medical emergency rooms was a lot higher, according to the GRS.
Non-fatal injuries are no less traumatic. Victims who get permanently disabled often lose their jobs and/ or other sources of livelihood. Some victims are paralysed and have to spend the rest of their lives as paraplegics.
Many more suffer from ordinary or complex fractures that require costly surgeries, but there is no reliable data on these cases. The IIT Delhi report lists more than 25 reasons why it finds the government data on road safety unreliable, in turn making reliable analyses practically impossible. Can the minister address this problem speedily please?
(With inputs from Aditya Anand and Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra)