A major consequence of fast-paced motorisation and expansion of roads and highways in India is the mounting rate of fatalities and injuries from traffic accidents. More than 110,000 people are killed on the roads each year, with the death toll rising by eight per cent annually; the estimate for serious injuries is 1.6 million. India's roads are now rated the worst in the world. Viewed against this background, the road safety initiative launched by the central government and the World Bank to cover 3,000 km of high-risk national and State highways in Assam, Gujarat, and Karnataka is an incremental step to improve the situation. Under the plan, affordable improvements based on the latest technologies will be put in place to reduce crashes and fatalities. The project will draw upon the experience of the International Road Assessment Programme supported by the World Bank in several countries. The investments can improve the safety record of some roads. What is important, however, is for the government to demonstrate the political will to move beyond limited schemes in a few States. The continuing carnage demands a policy of zero tolerance to crashes covering the entire network of 65,000-plus km of national highways and the quarter million km of urban roads. Almost three years ago, the Sundar Committee recommended a national road safety policy but precious little has been done by way of implementation.
There is no justification for delayed action on road safety when the national economic loss on account of death and disability from accidents is officially reckoned to be of the order of Rs.75,000 crore a year. Research on the challenge facing India points to specific areas that need urgent action. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and non-motorised vehicle users constitute 60 per cent of those killed on urban roads; and motorcyclists and small car users make up 25 per cent. Unsurprisingly, there is a disproportionate involvement of trucks and buses in fatal crashes, highlighting a key problem. These data point to the need for segregation of vulnerable road users and appropriate traffic calming measures to reduce risk. Equally, scientific design of roads and vehicles can reduce conflicting interactions among road users and mitigate the consequences of accidents. There should be a sincere attempt to analyse such data emerging from studies conducted by injury prevention researchers in the country. The Sundar Committee has rightly pointed out that the State transport departments, which now play the relatively minor role of licensing and vehicle registration, should be made legally responsible for coordination of multi-sectoral safety. The time to act is now.