Understanding pedestrian safety in India
India leads the world in road crash fatalities. As per a recently released report by WHO, India contributes to 22% of global road crash deaths. Even as India signed the Brasilia Declaration in 2015, committing to reduce road deaths by half by the year 2020, road crashes have seen an increasing trend in the past few years.
A significant subset of the problem is that of pedestrian crashes. According to a nationally representative mortality survey, 37% of all road traffic deaths in India comprise pedestrians. However, for anyone who refers to the official data, zooming in on this issue is hardly possible given that pedestrian vulnerability is underestimated to a great extent. Reports released by Ministry of Road Transport & Highways (MoRTH) and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicate that only 10-15% of all deaths involve pedestrians; however, a few independent studies estimate the percentage to be at least three times higher.
When we look at data available at the city-level, it is evident that pedestrian crashes are concentrated in urban areas, which see a dense and complex road traffic environment. For example, in Mumbai, pedestrian deaths accounted for 56% of the total road crash deaths in 2015. In Bangalore, police data indicates that pedestrians comprised 44% of the total road deaths in 2017. All of these statistics point to a grim fact that we have been ignoring safety of pedestrians in our cities for a very long time now.
Walking is the mode of commute for nearly 45 million people in India. In urban areas, 23% of the working population travels to work by foot. When we contrast this with the fact that, most often, only a paltry percentage of road space is made available to pedestrians, it helps us assimilate the nature of the problem. Our road traffic environment— comprising design, infrastructure, enforcement, and culture—is not conducive to safe pedestrian movement. Over the years, roads in our country have been transformed to maximize the carriage of motorized traffic. Resultantly, pedestrians are left with very little road space, which they in turn are forced to share with parked vehicles, street vendors, utility installations etc. With very little choice left, pedestrians often spill over to the carriage way and interact dangerously with the motorized traffic. The fact that speeds of motorized traffic is neither regulated nor infrastructurally enforced through speed limiting devices such as traffic calmers adds to the set of problems. With very high relative speeds and high exposure of pedestrians, fatal crashes are only consequential.
The National Urban Transport Policy, urban road design codes (issued by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs), and the IRC guidelines prescribe the design and quality of pedestrian infrastructure on our roads. But the lack of adherence to these guidelines has resulted in what we see on our roads today. For example, IRC 103-2012 specifies that the footpaths should at least be 1.8m wide to allow two wheelchairs to comfortably pass each other. Most roads in our cities don’t even have footpaths. Wherever they are available, most often, the width is not adequate to allow for uninterrupted and safe walking of pedestrians. To add to this, traffic violations against pedestrians are barely caught by the police since these are harder to enforce as compared to others such as helmets and seatbelts. By making such allowances, we are nurturing a road culture that is highly apathetic to pedestrians.
It is evident that, by improving road design and infrastructure for pedestrians, we can help mitigate road crashes in our country by a great deal. Our cities should urgently invest in making our roads walkable and safe for pedestrians. All new roads should be designed and built to have safe pedestrian spaces such as footpaths, at-grade pedestrian crossings, and refuge islands, and our existing roads should be overhauled to safely accommodate pedestrians. Civic participation and advocacy will have a huge role to play in achieving this feat. To begin with, all of us should be equipped with knowledge and information to identify unsafe pedestrian spaces and comprehend what safe design and infrastructure means. Without this, road crash deaths will continue to be on the rise, impacting public health and quality of life. Not prioritizing pedestrians could also induce a shift from walking, which is the greenest mode of commute, to other modes. Such a shift can have far-reaching collateral effects on our climate and environment.