A new super expressway between Gurugram (Gurgaon) to Jaipur will reduce travel time between the two cities to just 90 minutes from the five to six hours required right now. This is not yet another lofty claim by a Government but a reality, which should be ready in the next 15 months. The 200-odd kilometres long expressway will be one of its kind in the country and it goes without saying that cutting down travel time between two large cities to just 1/3 rd of the present duration will have immense socio-economic benefits. Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping has already laid the foundation stone for this highway and the Government needs to be lauded for coming up with a project of this scale and benefits.
Who makes expressways unsafe?
However, there seems to be a major safety concern too, which if left unaddressed could add significantly to the already highest road fatalities in the world on Indian roads. The concern becomes clear once the Government's claims are run though basic Mathematics. A 200 km + distance in under 90 minutes would need an average speed of around 130 km/h. Now maintaining an average speed that high needs the top speed to at times exceed 150 km/h. Majority of the cars sold in the country start floating like boats in choppy waters at such speeds.
These are seriously quick speed limits even by European standards even some sections of the Autobahns in Germany have lesser speed limits than being proposed for the new Gurgaon-Jaipur expressway. The Government is open to raising the speed limits for this new expressway as it'll be access-controlled so the chances of pedestrians or animals popping up in front of a vehicle will be minimum. However, there's another problem that is more dangerous than anything else and that's the drivers.
Traffic sense and knowledge about traffic rules is extremely poor in India, which is due to a number of factors including lack of awareness and weak implementation of laws. As a result, despite car-ownership being per 1,000 people being minuscule compared to Europe, we have the most dangerous civilised roads on the planet. With the kind of population we have and the number of people gearing up to buy vehicles, our roads could soon turn into ticking bombs, unless a 360 degree approach is taken for road safety, something the new super expressway might lack in the next 15 months.
Imagine a scenario wherein a driver going at 140 km/h suddenly comes across a driver who's pulling up to relieve himself or to smoke a cigarette. Even worse, there are people who leave broken down vehicles with a branch of some plant to indicate a problem. My question is by what logic is green going to be visible from a distance when the background itself is mostly grey and green. During dark the results of such actions mixed with speeds close to 150 km/h can have catastrophic results.
Broken down vehicles also brings up the point of vehicle health as most vehicles entering the expressway won't be fit to drive at anywhere close to its speed limit. A quick look around you will reveal the poor health of tyres people maintain for their vehicles. Worn out tyres and under/ over inflated tyres can be extremely quick agents of converting life to death and the Noida-Agra Yamuna Expressway is a testimony to the same. Recent media reports stated that in about more than 4.5 years, the Yamuna Expressway has witnessed more than 4,000 accidents, resulting in 548 fatalities. These are truly disturbing numbers for road with maximum speed limit of 100 km/h and we are talking about an increase to the tune of 40 % already!
Who's going to check whether a vehicle is in the right health to go on to the expressway? What about the safety hazards about people driving at half the speed limit in the right lane?
These are some safety concerns that come immediately to the mind but the list runs really long. Accidents taking place at such high speeds rarely leave room for survival and even if they do, in many cases the after-life isn't normal. The worrying part about these concerns is that they are more due to the fault of drivers and road users and not just the Government.
Is there a solution in place?
While India is making good progress in the economic path, especially under the present Government, authorities need to be extra-sensitive to safety concerns. The economic damage of accidents is already unbelievably high for India. The economic impact o accidents in India in the year 2014 was 3 % of the national GDP, which translates into a figure of around Rs 3.8 lakh crore. The social cost in form of grief is much high and impossible to calculate. So hopefully, authorities will keep safety concerns firmly in mind over the next 15-odd months of making this new super expressway and implement them effectively once the expressway is ready. If that happens, this could be a highway to development. If not, accidents at such high speeds could make this a highway to hell!