The twin needs of safety and efficiency are sometimes weighed against each other at a policy or operational level, but it is important to emphasise their evaluation within the context of an overall transportation system needing stakeholder ownership and partnerships to realise safety goals. Let us briefly discuss the road infrastructure development within the context of overall societal needs in a fast developing country like India. We will then take a look at the evolution of such road infrastructure before evaluating it in the context of safety and operational efficiency.
Indian road infrastructure is fairly extensive and widely spread across the Indian subcontinent. However, its reliability and safety are major concerns. The same was highlighted by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in its opening statement at the Road Safety Week, 2012. Over 125,000 persons were killed in road accidents in India in 2009 at an average of 350 person deaths per day. The rate and severity of accidents has been increasing significantly in the recent past as more modern and high speed highways are being built. Fatality and severity rate in India is understandably higher than the US on account of number of pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles. Yet, a 16 times higher rate than the average rate of the US cannot be justified. The robust growth of automobile ownership compounds the situation further. These situations pose before us the challenge of identifying the causes for the increase in road fatalities and severity of accidents and ensuring safe operations while balancing the underlying societal needs for an even faster and efficient transportation system.
In order to meet the challenge of larger and faster vehicles, and higher volumes of traffic on the roads without impeding the growth of the nation, our road infrastructure needs to be made more efficient with modern, well designed and safe road infrastructure. Regional transportation operations such as I95 Corridor coalition, US DOT’s Connected Vehicle programme for safety and Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) are specific strategic initiatives which blend safety improvements into operations and design to help make roads safe and operationally efficient. Connected vehicle safety applications are designed to increase situational awareness and reduce or eliminate crashes through vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) data transmission. This is done using dedicated short range communication (DSRC) among other channels to support driver advisories, driver warnings, and vehicle and/or infrastructure controls. These technologies address up to 82 percent of crash scenarios with unimpaired drivers, thus preventing tens of thousands of automobile crashes every year and potentially heavy vehicle crashes including buses and motor carriers.
Viewing the US interstate highway system from a historical perspective could help us understand where we are in India. This can help us avoid the mistakes made there and accelerate our evolution to safe road system driven by all stakeholders. Prior to building the virtual information highways of the 21st century which became the World Wide Web or internet, the real interstate highway system was envisioned in the United States of America in 1956. Both these highway systems, built half a century apart, succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of their respective inventors. Their wide uses were not envisioned prior to their becoming a reality. The two systems tell us that we must not be too deterministic of the immediate problems or concerned about the end result but take steps that mean well for the nation and let the citizenry take advantage of the systems built. US government enabled these systems to thrive by providing a level playing field. Through the law of intended consequences these two highway systems – virtual and real (worldwide web and the US interstate System respectively) – have nurtured two new industries. One of the common threads between the two was the deliberate absence of overpowering governmental control while allowing free use.
Even though the US interstate system was built by the federal government to support employment and get out of the depression, its use and land use development abutting it has been left to the private domain. The large transport of goods and services across the nation created markets that did not exist before for both perishable produce as well as non-perishable manufactured goods. California, Florida and other agrarian states developed their economies as a result of new markets for their produce through the latter half of the twentieth century made possible by the US interstates highway system.
When built, the US interstate system did not envision the kind of safety issues from high speed auto travel or the wastage of fuel due to high speeds which became a national crisis during the global oil shortages of the 1970s. This shows that as a nation we need to have a vision and persistence to pursue our goal even when faced with adversity or unintended consequences. However, if all else fails we need to react accordingly. One such example is the rampant increase in fatalities due to the new high speed roads. Failing other voluntary means, the US seat belt law was passed which required vehicles to come equipped with seat belts from 1968, but it took 16 years for the first state to enforce it in 1984. The seat belt usage, by law and by pubic campaigning, has now reached 80 plus percentage points after 20 years. Can we, in India, afford such a delay and decades of wanton loss of life?