On the face of it, the simple and common reasoning for road accidents often beat around brittle infrastructure, negligent and corrupt safety enforcement, and irresponsible drivers. In the Indian context, all these stand true. Indian roads witness a hierarchy of vehicles. One can see any vehicle from a bullock cart to a Porsche or BMW simultaneously competing for space on a 7-metre wide 4-lane highway. Adding to this heat are the jaywalkers, cautious pedestrians crossing the road, shepherds and stray animals. Enforcement many a time is negotiated to a warning. In those cases when the vehicle driver is fined, the fee (and the bribery at times) for non-adherence is affordably less. In other cases, the foot walkers blame the motor drivers and pity their own selves. These factors tend to rationalise the non-adherence to safe behaviours, and therefore the low rate of accident reduction across the country.
Having worked in around 15 road and tunnel safety projects in my professional years, it is my understanding that the motivation to adhere to safety is caught in the web of sectoral systems comprising of the legislators, law enforcers, road designers, transport authorities, vehicle manufacturers, user perceptions, social norms and cognitive limitations.
Power And Dominance: No one intends to meet with an accident. None intends to even hit and run a dog. But their intentions are often not translated into action. Motor vehicles are a human’s power suit. It provides us the power of speed and to travel faster in time. Contextual contingencies considered, there may be a speed limit set for every road stretch. But thanks to the ‘innovations’ made by automobile manufacturers and designers, the capabilities of these motored armours surpass human-made limits. When in behold of the power, we never fail to show-off, thence the overspeeding, particularly on highways since they are meant for high-speed driving. In fact, this misalignment between limits and capacity disallows the drivers from distinguishing between high-speed driving and overspeeding — a critical limitation that causes accidents. In addition, this power wielded by the vehicle, say a four-wheeler, makes its user feel dominant over lower grade vehicles such as 3-wheelers or 2-wheelers or even pedestrians. Motor vehicle drivers find themselves to be superior over the pedestrians, and so the pedestrians are expected to give them the way, rather than the other way round. These dynamics are witnessed not just between the hierarchies of transport. Research has found that when in traffic if the car in front of us is lower ranked than ours, we tend to honk for it to move away. Whereas, if the car is the front in of higher ranking than ours, we tend to give way. Reduced Fear, Reduced Feeling Of Risk: While the motored power suit compounded with an individual’s rate of accident experiences feed into the drivers’ private optimism, pedestrians and jaywalkers fall for the familiarity of ‘their’ road. Both private optimism and familiarity boost confidence and reduce their feeling of risk for their safety on the roads. Insufficiency In Road Design: The traditional approach to road design is zoning by segregation. Foot walkers and animals are provided with overpasses and underpasses, and the tarred or concrete roads are allowed for motor vehicles. Based on user behaviours, availing the same approach, the roads are further spatially segregated to accommodate for bicycles, two-wheelers, and heavy loaders. But this approach has failed to ensure safety on the road. Ethnographic researches conducted by me and my team have shown that grade level zonings such as lane divisions are often futile interventions in an over-populated location such as India. Contrarily, the provision of underpasses and overpasses is safer. But the user requires tremendous mental and physical effort to choose to cross on. This, especially when the visual cue to their destination is right across the road, which makes it be perceived nearby and less effortful to just cross the road, not to mention their (humans’) cognitive inability to assess the speed of large objects. Accommodating for these user behaviours is a complex design problem that road designers are yet to focus on. Lax Enforcement On Ground: Once in Mumbai I was travelling in an auto when:
Case 1: The auto abruptly stopped right before the stop line at a red signal. Stop line alignment is an uncommon or rather never seen a sight. When I enquired, he pointed at the CCTV cameras placed on a pole. He feared being captured and fined.
Case 2: The auto abruptly stopped again in another red signal. This was at a major junction which, uncommonly now, had many police sightings. All these enforcers were diligently and fiercely regulating both the motor traffic and the pedestrians: All motor vehicles were stopped at the stop line and no pedestrians were allowed to crisscross, and rather were guided and instructed to use the skywalks. All this sophistication because a key minister was in the vicinity.
Whatever may be the external reason, that was the first time when I saw the value in stringent enforcement. The junction was neat and tidily arranged, the way it has to be. In a similar fashion, one way to draw the line on unsafe road behaviours is by uncompromising rule enforcement on the ground, which unfortunately is an uncommon practice.
Even beyond these understandings, one question about safety adherence that has always badgered me was — being the social beings we are, incessantly trying to survive and evade death, shouldn’t we be naturally disposed towards safer options? But clearly, our research across projects have shown that there are various contextual, behavioural and emotional factors that non-consciously influence our decisions to choose an action that may not be safe. It is as complex as the human body that, no one sector stand-alone can achieve safety on roads. In a similar fashion to the ‘organized motordom‘, in order to facilitate safe behaviour adherence on roads, all relevant sectors need to work in coalition, and that includes the motor manufacturers. Innovation through a combined force is what will help India leap forward in road safety.