In India, around 50% of pedestrian fatalities in the worst-performing states in road safety viz., West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Karnataka are due to private vehicles which are termed as ‘crime vehicles’ in the Road Accidents in India 2019 report by Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.
About three years ago, CEAT Limited, a leading tyre manufacturer, launched a popular ad campaign which humorously highlighted the serious hazards that Indian bikers face on roads. The campaign’s insistence on road safety for riders by positioning the superior grip of tyres was unique but not entirely new. Back in 2011, when road safety was not even a buzzword, their equally clear insistence on satire and wit over jargon- and despair-heavy TV commercials, imprinted on our minds the many woes and foes of Indian roads.
These woes were presented to us, the viewers and consumers, as dangerous actions by the ‘idiots’ who populate the streets: idiots who jump signals, idiots who jaywalk, idiots on the phone while crossing the streets, idiots who leave children unattended, idiots who are negligent with ‘Work in Progress’ sign for manhole covers. In this way, CEAT’s ‘The Streets are filled with idiots’ ad campaign identified a range of road users from whom the bikers needed protection. A new round of commercials in 2013, with a slight tweak and similar tone, exhorted the motorists to make themselves ‘Idiot Safe’.
Come 2017 and this range of idiots got reduced to a few Mahapurush (great man)! One such great man is Mr. Nehlau (Mr. I’ll-Bathe-You) who passionately splashes water on the road giving everyone a bath unasked for just because he is behind wheels. Notably, this is the only commercial where an idiot or mahapurush is shown as a menace to not just the rider — CEAT Tyres’ target audience — but also a pedestrian. Ironically, this evolution in CEAT’s understanding of vulnerable road users is immediately falsified by its depiction of the other two mahapurush.
We open on a wide shot of a typical Indian street on any regular day. It is brimming with activity and vibrancy with all kinds of road users leaping in and out of the chaotic melee. There are pedestrians, cyclists, a person reading a newspaper in the middle of the street (with the front page headline declaring ‘Accidents on rise’), the traffic controller sipping chai at the roadside tapri, an office-goer relishing pani-puri with headphones on, workers unloading goods and so on. Cut to a man who is mid-air, running to cross the street, a few seconds and inches shy of a collision with the bike. He is introduced as India’s Usain Bolt. One of the many mahapurush, he can “showcase a perfect example of long jump, high jump and steeplechase in front of your vehicle” [emphasis mine] the voice artist intones, implying the danger he poses to the biker. Sure enough, the anticipation of a crash — built up using the freeze frame effect — subsides as it is safely avoided on time thanks to a strong tyre grip. In another ad, a similar sequence depicts Mr. Haath Dikhao (Mr. Show-Your-Hand), a pedestrian “who can stop the universe” with his “aashirvaad hand”, endangering the safety of a couple in a car.
It is easy to watch these advertisements and appreciate the cause of road safety which they champion. However, the mahapurush campaign also indirectly (and perhaps, unconsciously) reflects the pickle road safety finds itself in: how to recognize that the onus of accidents lies as much with people who are prone to make mistakes as with a system that fails to minimize the impact of human errors. By humanizing the perils or obstacles faced by one category of road users i.e. bikers, the ad campaign fails to humanize all road users, and thereby justifies the term mahapurush.
CEAT Limited’s top officials have commented on the company’s commitment to road safety of “drivers, riders and pedestrians” on many different occasions and platforms. But their ad campaign pits the pedestrians against the two-wheeler riders — one vulnerable road user against another — “in the game called road.” This reductionist and unsustainable us-versus-them tack ignores a bigger obstacle when actually everyone is united in their harmless pursuit of going from point A to point B.
Then, who’s the mahapurush? It’s a faulty system. It’s the inequitable allocation of road space. It’s the disregard for human fallibility. It is the disavowal of a shared responsibility among all road users and those who design, maintain and operate all parts of the road transport system to reduce risk.
The road does nothing,
its blood poisoned, your car
a nasty growth.
I’ve managed a few more inches this week
with a crutch I made of paper,
and a straw.
— Adil Jussawalla, ‘On My Own Feet’
Now, sample this — 2019 witnessed record pedestrian deaths at 25,858 people, an increase of 86% from 2015. This accounted for 17% of all traffic fatalities. In percentage terms, while the total traffic fatalities decreased by 0.2 % compared to 2018, this wasn’t the case for pedestrian fatalities which increased by 14%. Similarly, road crash deaths for two-wheeler riders increased from 36.5% in 2018 to 37.1% in 2019. Over the years, both two-wheeler riders and pedestrians have been disproportionately involved in road traffic injuries and deaths. Sadly, their safety is becoming a concern only because an unprecedented number of deaths loom large while the narrative around safety continues to be trite.
This year, India is observing its first ever National Road Safety Month from January 18th to February 17th. Earlier, National Road Safety Week used to be observed. This increase in duration, during which awareness about the causes of road accidents and measures to prevent them are highlighted, when seen in the context of road crashes claiming more than 400 lives every day in India, seems relevant and urgent. It also seems expedient given India’s commitment to bring down traffic fatalities and accidents by half by 2025, and an even ambitious vision to have zero fatalities by 2030. As per the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Report on Road Safety, 2018 India ranks first in the number of road crash deaths, which accounts for almost 11% of the accident-related deaths across 199 countries.
When it comes to road safety, there are two crucial aspects that the said CEAT ad campaign got very right. The first is the depiction of the streets, most of which are vibrant public spaces and not just conduits for traffic. Secondly, it shows that road traffic collisions are not inevitable. An understanding of risk factors makes collisions predictable and thereby avoidable.
Speeding vehicles is one such risk factor for pedestrian injury and death. The thrill of driving vehicles at an anesthetizing speed to feel alive can spell doom for pedestrians. Speeding vehicles increase the chances of conflict and the severity of the impact, more so if vehicles have solid fronts that hamper visibility and in the case of drinking and driving.
In the event of a crash, media reporting tends to put the blame either on the victim or the ‘bad driver’, in alignment with a common perception. ‘A pedestrian fell under the wheels of a truck’ or ‘Car driver hits a pedestrian’ is how the headlines usually read. However, the global road safety best practices have moved away from driver-blaming and victim-shaming towards adopting a Safe Systems Approach.
The concerned agencies must set appropriate speed limits for different kinds of roads and vehicles. Strict enforcement of speed limits by the Traffic Police and stringent driving tests by the Regional Transport Office (RTOs) are equally crucial. The effect of the use of phones while driving and walking on pedestrian safety must be investigated. Vehicles should be equipped with safety features to reduce the impact of collisions. With the implementation of BNVSAP (Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Program), it is now mandatory for all the car manufacturers to add pedestrian safety software.
The other big risk factor is an abject lack of infrastructural facilities for pedestrians. The formative fabric of our cities has drifted towards the growth and maintenance of vehicles. Resultantly, urban streets are optimized for motor traffic, leaving out the foot traffic which is controlled to minimize its friction to the seamless movement of automobiles.
What we see is a proliferation of wide roads, elevated roads, signal-free corridors that dot the urban landscape even after they have been globally proven to be unsafe and unsustainable. The most pedestrian-safe cities of the world have reclaimed streets from cars, made city-centres car-free, disincentivized car ownership and parking. In India, around 50% of pedestrian fatalities in the worst-performing states in road safety viz., West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Karnataka are due to private vehicles which are termed as ‘crime vehicles’ in the Road Accidents in India — 2019 report by Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. This goes on to show the link between increasing motorization and rising pedestrian fatalities.
On the other hand, despite various Indian Roads Congress (IRC) guidelines specifying design standards for urban streets, government schemes and missions stressing the need for better pedestrian infrastructure, and several Court judgments asserting the rights of pedestrians, our cities lack even basic provisions for walking. This goes on to show that the concern for safety and its link to basic infrastructure provision continues to be compromised for cities’ umbilical link to vehicles.
Wherever footpaths exist, they are mostly inadequate, unsafe, discontinuous and encroached. In many cities to date, drain covers function as footpaths. The zebra crossings are invisible and not a deterrent for speeding vehicles. The necessary mid-block crossings take the form of subways or foot overbridges, removing pedestrians from the streets, requiring them to take a longer, unsafe and arduous route to cross the street. This lack of safe walking and crossing infrastructure compels pedestrians to take shorter, riskier routes, adopting the everyday combat stance of the “aashirvaad hand”.
The functionality, accessibility and above all safety of streets cannot be emphasized to the exclusion of social, physical and emotional well-being fostered by well-designed footpaths, safe and frequent crossings and adequate street lights. The pride, political mileage and sustained funding which goes into achieving construction of 30 kilometres of road per day must exist for putting safety protocols in place for them and equally for ensuring safe infrastructure for pedestrians.
Other important interventions required include coordination and shared responsibility among all stakeholders, improving care for the injured, promoting research and data analysis, education and outreach through behavioural safety programs, people’s participation, demand and awareness for road safety.
“Cities when they work best, are drivers of empathy”
- War on Cars podcast
The beauty of a city safe for pedestrians is that it is safe for everyone. The moment we talk about pedestrians, we are essentially talking about humankind. Apart from the ordinary form of walking, a pedestrian may be using various aids for walking such as wheelchairs, canes, roller blades, etc. A person is also considered a pedestrian when running, jogging, hiking or even when sitting on the footpath. Everyone is a pedestrian at one point or another in their journey.
Walking is one of modern life’s equalizers, bringing millions of people together into some semblance of solidarity with one another, if only briefly. Until this building block of our social lives, so crucial and so pervasive is not secured, road safety will remain a distant dream and goal.