Fast and furious: Tamil Nadu road saga

With close to 1,000 lives lost and over 5,000 injured in 2021, Tamil Nadu’s capital topped many undesirable lists as far as road accidents go. Among States, T.N. stood first in terms of per capita deaths.

September 11, 2022 01:36 am | Updated 01:16 pm IST

Tamil Nadu topped the list of States with most road accidents last year. About 64% of them occurred on the National and State Highways.

Tamil Nadu topped the list of States with most road accidents last year. About 64% of them occurred on the National and State Highways. | Photo Credit: L. BALACHANDAR

Nine hundred and ninety-eight lives were lost to road accidents in Chennai last year. Half of them died before turning 45 years. Over 80% of them were men. Half of the victims were travelling on two-wheelers, with over 90% of them speeding or driving carelessly, leading to their deaths. One in five accidents happened in the late evening hours of 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. And they declined in the summer month of May when schools and colleges were closed.

Typically, a median road accident victim in Chennai is a middle-aged male who travels on a two-wheeler and carelessly drives or overtakes or is speeding, mostly in the late evening hours. The conclusions were drawn from the data in the National Crime Records Bureau’s Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India (ADSI) 2021 report.

The city witnessed 5,034 road accidents in 2021, the highest among 53 metropolitan cities analysed by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) with a population of 1 million or above. The accident count was 500 more than Delhi’s and 1,800 more than Bengaluru’s, the other cities in the top three list. In these accidents, 5,020 people were injured — the highest among all cities — and about 1,200 more than Delhi’s and 2,200 more than Bengaluru’s injured list. However, Delhi’s related fatalities of 1,172 were slightly higher than Chennai’s 998 — the second on the list.

While the number of road accidents in Chennai “slightly increased in 2021”, there has been a 20% decline in 2022, according to Kapil Kumar C. Saratkar, Additional Commissioner of Police, Traffic, Chennai city. “Until August-end of last year, 388 road accident deaths were reported; in the corresponding period this year, it decreased to 333. Our fatality and grievous injury rates have gone down,” he said. The number for 2022 has not yet been published by the NCRB. , and it will reflect in the upcoming edition of the ADSI report.

The age-wise split of road accident victims was not provided by the NCRB, but the document has such a breakdown for all accident victims. As road accidents account for 70% of all accidents in Chennai, the pattern is unlikely to change much.

Combined with other major cities in the State such as Coimbatore (866 accidents and 234 related deaths in 2021), Madurai (618 accidents and 154 deaths) and Tiruchi (399 accidents and 130 deaths), Tamil Nadu topped the list of States with most road accidents last year. With 55,682 road accidents in 2021, the State’s count was over 7,000 more than Madhya Pradesh’s and 21,000 more than Karnataka’s, the other States in the top three list.

As many as 55,996 persons were injured in road accidents in Tamil Nadu, the highest among all States, and 15,384 persons died, slightly lower than Uttar Pradesh’s toll of 21,792. However, Tamil Nadu topped the charts in terms of per capita road accident deaths (victims per 1 lakh population), with 20.1 fatalities for every 1 lakh people.

Pandemic impact

Notably, the number of road accidents and related deaths and injuries were lower than the pre-pandemic levels in both the State and the city. The number of cases of accidents in the State was in the range of 60,000 to 70,000 in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, and deaths, too, were higher in most years. Similarly, the number of deaths consistently crossed the 1,000-mark in Chennai in the years before the pandemic. However, in both the State and the city, the 2021 number was much higher than the levels recorded in 2020 when accidents declined with the enforcement of the restrictions to curb the pandemic.

Design flaws

According to the NCRB, about 64% of the accidents in Tamil Nadu occurred on the National and State Highways in 2021. And according to the State Crime Records Bureau, about 20% of them took place at road junctions. There are close to 2,200 junctions on the National Highways in the State.

Also Read | Data | In 2021, over 1.5 lakh died in road accidents, most were young men speeding on two-wheelers

An officer attached to the Tamil Nadu government’s Special Task Force on Road Safety (STF-RS) said there are three cardinal rules for the design of junctions. The first is the line of sight — drivers should be able to see each other well before braking distance. The second is the merging angle — the angle at which a vehicle from a side road joins the highway. Third, the merging speed — both vehicles should meet at safer speeds, which can be achieved with designs that slow the vehicles down. Unfortunately, these features are missing at most junctions and so the police use barricades, the officer rued.

According to the SCRB, 10% of the accidents happened on curved sections. Indian Road Congress codes mandate a safe curvature angle (to ensure safe centrifugal force while turning) and proper super-elevation (to counter the centrifugal force) in such curved sections. Another officer of the STF-RS said paved shoulders (the concrete part of a road after the white markings on the sides) and the earthen shoulders (the space just after the concrete part of the road ends) are essential for roads; otherwise, vehicles may veer off the roads even with the slightest deviations.

Shortcomings in design were blamed for the recent fatal accidents at Anjali round junction in Dindigul and on the Gandhipuram flyover in Coimbatore. Currently, safety features such as rumble strips, transverse markings and road studs have been added to these two spots, a police officer pointed out.

When the width of the State Highways was increased from 5.5 metres to 7.5 metres, even the trees planted way beyond the road boundaries became a cause for concern. Identification of such spots and reflectors that are strategically placed will prevent accidents.

Manpower crunch

While the number of vehicles and the length of roads have increased over the years, there has not been a commensurate increase in the workforce of the traffic police. Especially, outside city limits, traffic policemen are few and far between, so the police in charge of law and order are burdened with the additional responsibility.

A Road Safety Authority (RSA), for which the STF-RS is preparing the draft legislation, is seeking to address the manpower crunch. RSA will be a statutory body of IAS and IPS officers and officials of the Departments of Transport, Highways and Health. It will strategise and monitor the implementation of road safety plans across the State.

Tools and processes

Vinit Dev Wankhede, Additional Director-General of Police, SCRB, and chairman of STF-RS, said, “Our idea is that we should create tools and processes that help overburdened officers monitor road safety effectively in the shortest possible time. RSA has to aid the field officers. We need to scientifically devise strategies and tactics with the maximum focus on preventing fatalities.”

“We recently entered into an MoU with the Centre for Excellence on Road Safety (CoERS), IIT Madras, to develop and document such strategies. We have listed 10 major enforcement areas such as speeding, drunken-driving, underage driving, rash/thrill driving, helmet violations, highway hypnosis/driver fatigue, signal jumping, driving on the wrong side, parking on highways and pedestrian/cattle crossings. We expect the first version of the blue book on scientific enforcement to be ready in a few months,” Mr. Wankhede said.

A scientific study

K.P. Subramanian, a former professor of urban engineering at Anna University, said scientific investigation by interdisciplinary teams is the way forward to identify the actual cause of accidents. “The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, has many positive provisions to take stringent actions against traffic violations, and make the quality of roads and the motor vehicles accountable for accidents. However, Tamil Nadu is yet to enforce those provisions. Also, the absence of wider application of the Intelligence Transport Enforcement System results in lack of transparency and accountability,” Mr. Subramanian said.

Mr. Wankhede said a recent police station-level field survey cited the “top-down approach” towards road safety as a major roadblock. “Road safety is not complicated science. The users and officials on the ground have a clear understanding of the cause of accidents at the local hotspots and what solutions would work best,” he said.

Recognising this fact, Mr. Wankhede said, field survey teams comprised a head constable, a sub-inspector who had knowledge of the accident spots, a road inspector from the Department of Highways, a village administrative officer/municipal ward official and a team from the civil engineering department of a local college.

He said these teams have completed the task and identified 4,334 hotspots in the State with the Field Survey app. Close to 1,575 are on the National Highways, 1,511 are on the State Highways and about 900 are on the Major District Roads. The team suggested some short-term engineering solutions.

Currently, Assistant Engineers are assessing the suggestions and based on their inputs, short-term plans will be formed and implemented in the next few months.

Before the field survey, the STF-RS team collected the location data of most accidents that happened in the last few years. The data were fed into a portal developed by the Tamil Nadu e-Governance Agency. They were used by the survey teams for identifying hotspots. “These data will soon be linked to the Integrated Road Accident Database. And also, we will shortly launch a road safety mobile application, which will collect suggestions from users. They will be posted on a road safety portal,” Mr. Wankhede said.

Bus accidents go up

A senior official of the Tamil Nadu Transport Department said bus accidents have almost doubled in the State from 1,289 in the financial year 2020-21 to 2,339 in 2021-22.

The official ascribed it to an increase in the distance run by the buses from 13 lakh km in 2020-21 to 22 lakh km in 2021-22. The significant difference was because of the curbs on the movement on account of the pandemic in the previous year.

The number of fatal accidents involving the eight State Transport Corporations has increased to 705, accounting for 762 deaths, in 2021-22 from 343 accidents, leading to 381 deaths, in 2020-21. However, both the figures were much lower than 2019-20 (the pre-pandemic period) when 969 persons were killed in 867 accidents.

The official said sensitisation programmes were organised for the bus crew after the pandemic restrictions were removed. The programmes are carried out through the safety offices, disseminating the standard operating procedures (SOPs) prepared for road safety through a series of drills and demonstrations for preventing road accidents.

The Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA), which was mooted a decade ago, is taking shape with the State government appointing I. Jeyakumar as a Special Officer. Mr. Jeyakumar said that once the Assembly passes the legislation, the authority would become functional and coordinate with government departments to undertake road safety measures. He said a sub-committee under the chairmanship of Transport and Road Safety Commissioner L. Nirmal Raj has been formed, and a meeting was convened in the last week of August to work out the modalities for creating a road safety cell for carrying out a safety audit.

( With inputs from R. Srikanth; data compiled by Rebecca Rose Varghese)

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