Page last updated at 04:25 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 05:25 UK

Death on India's roads

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Delhi


A hairy ride through Delhi's traffic

It's an all-too-depressing sight on India's chaotic roads. An accident - the crushed remains of a car or a van - and more anonymous victims.

There are now more road deaths in India than anywhere else in the world - a man-made epidemic according to a government committee.

In 2006 - the latest year for which figures are available - more than 100,000 people died, and an estimated 2,000,000 were seriously injured.

The economic and social costs of these shocking figures are enormous.

India loses 3% of its GDP to road crashes every year. Many of the deaths happen in rural areas, and one study found that 70% of families who lose their main wage earner in a traffic accident subsequently fall below the poverty line.

It is a scourge which claims far more victims than communicable diseases like Aids, TB and malaria combined. And yet far less money is spent on trying to do something about it.

"It's a national crisis," said Rohit Baluja, a leading road safety activist. "Not only casualties, but violations are increasing. We need strong political will to bring down the number of accidents."

Belatedly, the government has decided to act.

Legislation is moving slowly through the political system which will create powerful new road safety agencies at state and national level. They will be financed in part by tax on fuel.

On traffic patrol with Indian police

'You're fighting a war'

Critics fear this could turn out to be just another bureaucratic reorganisation, but the authors of the new scheme deny it.

"You're fighting a war, and you need a structured army to fight that war," said Sanjivi Sundar, who chaired a special government committee on road safety, "so that's what has been recommended."

Better road engineering, better driver training and better enforcement of the rules are all urgently needed.

At the moment it's much too easy to buy a driving licence in India without ever taking a test.

And as more and more people squeeze onto the roads - on two, three or four wheels - that is having a lethal effect.

"People don't care about road safety," said Harman Singh Sidhu, who was paralysed when his car crashed on a crumbling road 12 years ago.

"It's only when they are personally affected that anyone seems to pay any attention."

Mr Sidhu now spends his time in a wheelchair, lecturing drivers about safety standards. Much of the advice has to be pretty basic.

Typical congestion
Typical congestion in Delhi

We spoke to two lorry drivers who had just attended a road safety lesson. One of them hadn't known he was supposed to allow emergency vehicles like ambulances to pass him by; the other hadn't known what many of the road signs meant.

A new generation of driver education centres is emerging, with off-road circuits allowing learners to practise in safety. But at the moment it feels like a drop in the ocean.

Driving around India's crowded cities certainly isn't for the faint-hearted.

But the people most at risk are often pedestrians. Many of the fatalities in road accidents are simply trying to cross to the other side.

"We have to improve things, it isn't an option," said Sanjivi Sundar.

"The children we save from diseases when they are young, we sacrifice at a later date. We need to do something very urgently and very drastically."

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