Beware of Bigger Cars!
A recent news article talks about pedestrians and bikers being the most vulnerable on Mumbai roads. 57% of the deaths on Mumbai roads constitute pedestrians alone. Another 31% is made up of bikers. Together, they contribute to 88% of road fatalities. Strangely absent from the fray, is the top contender for road occupancy – considering there are so many four-wheelers on the road, they constitute less than 15% of the fatalities. However, cars cause 35% of the fatalities. And the more powerful the cars are, the more cause there is for concern. Taxis, surprisingly, cause the least number of accidents.
What explains this poor correlation between the number and the kind of vehicles causing accidents, considering powerful cars and SUVs are lesser in number on Mumbai roads as compared to the innumerable taxis and other smaller cars we see everyday.
Consider John Adams’ take on individual risk management – the ‘Risk Thermostat’. According to him, each individual has a specific level of risk-taking with which they are comfortable. If their sense of safety is increased, say by protective gear like seatbelts, or systemic changes like ABS, their behaviour becomes riskier – they compensate for this increase in safety till the set-level is reached again. The safer we feel, therefore, the more risky our behaviour. Consider the effect this could have on pedestrians and cyclists/bikers. The safer drivers of cars feel, whether it is thanks to seatbelts or their more expensive, powerful cars with fancy safety features, the more dangerously they drive. And the brunt of this increased risk is being borne by the more vulnerable pedestrians and bikers. We all know that the taxis and auto-rickshaws of Mumbai are infamous for both their age and absence of seat-belts. They are small cars, most of them with a broken down appearance. It is fitting, therefore, that they cause the least number of accidents. Adams also observed a troubling increase in both pedestrian and cyclist deaths immediately following the UK seatbelt law. Delhi enforced the seatbelt rule in February 2002. An exercise performed by Professor Dinesh Mohan, at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi to see the effectiveness of the seatbelt law concluded that it may have saved at most 11-15 lives per year in Delhi out of almost 2000 fatalities of drivers or front-seat passengers – less than 1% of the total (Chapter 3 of Indianomix)
We’ve noticed this trend not just on roads, but also on the project we carried out to make unmanned level crossings in India safer. The number of cases of the train colliding with bigger cars and SUVs were much higher than for smaller cars and tractors. As people perceive themselves as safer or better equipped against a danger (to navigate to the other side before the train comes in), they are more likely to take more risks. Also, there were fewer accidents at level-crossings where visibility was limited as opposed to when there was clear visibility.
How do we then make our roads safer? The answer does not lie in making cars safer but to redesign traditional traffic safety engineering and legislation, taking into account the vagaries of human behaviour, so that the roads are a safer place to pedestrians, cyclists and bikers as well.
– With inputs from Ram Prasad
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