On road to safety

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Updated: Oct 26 2011, 09:05am hrs
Indian cities are becoming increasingly unfriendly to pedestrians. There are too many road accidents resulting in loss of life and limb on a large scale. India has one of the highest road accident rates in the world. Some 130,000 people lose their lives in a year while another 500,000 or so are injured in road accidents.

A good many of the road accidents take place in cities. More vehicles on the streets, inadequate and ill-functioning traffic

support systems with little demarcation of lanes for different types of vehicles with varying speed capacity, the poor condition of our roads, drivers ill-educated in the risks of rash driving, poor signage, and poor enforcement of traffic rules, all play havoc with the lives of individuals.

The state of Tamil Nadu has had one of the worst records of vehicle accidents. It also has had the fastest increase in the number of vehicles in the country, from 82 lakh in 2007 to 1.3 crore in 2010. But there is some good news. The state has shown an innovative way to deal with the menace of unsafe conditions on the roads by using IT as a critical part of the solution, and it is beginning to show results.

Tamil Nadu was the first state in India to announce a Road Safety Policy in April 2007. This was followed by a Road Safety

Action Plan in 2009, which uses an IT-based system to track vehicular accidents. The project has been designed with the help of international consultants and funded by the World Bank.

A principal element of the Action Plan is a software package known as the Road Accident Data Management System (RADMS), which generates detailed information on accidents for all the roadsthe national highways, state highways,

major district roads, city/urban roads, etc. The GIS-based system is easy to use and has been deployed at all the 1,400 police stations of the state, and the personnel have all been trained in its use.

After visiting the accident site, the policeman on duty enters the details of the accident at the police station into a web-based Accident Record Form (ARF) of RADMS. The details of each accident include information on the registration numbers of the vehicles, the number of people involved in the accident, the number of fatalities, the severity of injuries, the exact location and the condition of the road, whether helmets and/or seat belts were being used, the level of intoxication if any of the driver at the time of the accident, etc.

Once the information is available online, officials from other departments fill in other relevant information. For example, the transport department fills in the drivers education, license type, age and condition of the vehicle, and the highways department enters the location, surface detail and classification of roads.

RADMS is supported by a powerful analysis engine incorporating kilometre analysis, grid analysis and cluster analysis, which helps in identifying high-density accident locations. Systems have been put in place to develop a coordinated response from different departments of the governmentlike the police, the roads department and the transport departmentto attend to the causes of repeated accidents in hot spots.

In its two years of operation, the system has identified 3,000 accident-prone spots. The data also helps to identify crash types (for example, whether the vehicle at a specific accident spot is always hit from the same side or whether the accident at a specific spot is mostly in the late evening hours and the drivers are found to be typically drunk at the time.) As Mr Ganesan Kumar, Deputy Project Director of the Tamil Nadu road sector project put it, The success

of the project depends on the ability to engineer a co-ordinated response.

The central nodal agency for implementing the Road Safety Action Plan is the State Traffic Planning Cell, and the Additional Director General of Police has the primary responsibility for managing the system and providing regular review reports to the government. For every accident that takes place, at least one official from each department of the concerned district reaches the accident spot within 24 hours for fatal accidents and within three days for the non-fatal ones. The concerned departments review the information and corrective measures are taken at the earliest.

The highways department has been better able to improve road conditions where they are most needed, such as by creating dividers in areas with a high frequency of head-on collision, upgrading unsafe road junctions, providing better street lighting, installing road signs, and trimming trees. The transport department has been able to target road safety awareness programmes, such as by providing compulsory refresher classes for drivers of heavy vehicles.

With accurate and real-time accident data replacing voluminous FIR data, the police department has been able to effectively post personnel at critical traffic junctions, deploy radar at appropriate places to detect and prevent speeding, provide speed breakers at relevant spots, upgrade traffic lights, and enforce rules for the use of seat belts and helmets etc. There are plans to provide a hand-held GPS-enabled device to personnel at each police station for capturing the accident details on the spot itself.

The availability of accurate information has enabled the authorities to provide financial and economic justification for a larger allocation of budgetary resources to improve road conditions. The provision of regular reports to the highest authorities in the state has raised the profile of road safety in Tamil Nadu. Each department now has ownership of road safety issues and the people have access to accurate information, empowering them to ask questions about the implementation of road safety measures.

The impact of the Road Safety Programme is beginning to show. The state had set a target of reducing fatalities per 10,000 vehicles by 20% over the period from 2006 to 2013. The target has already been exceeded and bolder targets can be set now. In the city of Chennai itself, the available data shows that in five prominent areas (namely Konnur High Road, Nelson Manikam Road, Perambur Barrax Road, Perambur High Road and Pulianthope High Road), there were only three vehicular accidents reported in the first nine months of the current year (as of October 1, 2011) compared with 34 in the same period of the previous year. Tamil Nadu in general and, therefore, Chennai are safer places for their residents today.

The inadequate availability and poor quality of public transport means that rising incomes in India are bound to give rise to increasing numbers of vehicles on the road. It is extremely important that programmes like the Tamil Nadu Road Safety Pprogramme are replicated across all states.

Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia is Chairperson, ICRIER, and also former Chairperson of the High Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure Services, which submitted its report to MoUD in March 2011