MUMBAI (Reuters) - The twisted metal of smashed up cars lining highways is a grim testament to India’s road toll, one of the worst in the world with around 100,000 people killed in traffic accidents last year alone.
As incomes rise and the economy rapidly expands, new cars and trucks pour onto Indian roads at an ever increasing pace, squeezing into narrow, congested streets that were never designed for such a massive flow of traffic.
Creaking infrastructure, poorly trained drivers and cars that lack basic safety features due to a preference for cheap, fuel efficient vehicles by Indian motorists are causing an already horrendous road toll to balloon.
And the toll is not just human. The World Bank estimates that every year road accidents cost India about 3 percent of its gross domestic product which was more than $1 trillion in 2007.
“We’re talking about a very serious issue here that also has huge economic implications,” said Rajesh Rohatgi, a transport specialist at the World Bank in New Delhi.
Road accidents could become the No. 3 public health issue in India by 2020, overtaking such deadly diseases as tuberculosis and AIDS, the World Bank predicts.
In India, where roads carry almost 90 percent of all passenger traffic and 65 percent of its freight, the mortality rate per 10,000 vehicles is 14 compared with less than two for developed countries, the World Bank estimates.
It is easy to see why: Cars and motorbikes — many with four riders astride — share space on narrow roads with bicycles, three-wheeled rickshaws, trucks, buses, the odd bullock cart and pedestrians forced to walk in roads by hawkers on pavements.
With few Indian cities enforcing even basic requirements such as seat belts, it is not unusual to see children sitting in the laps of adults in front seats, and overloaded buses with people balanced precariously on the steps or perched on the roofs.
Potholed roads, inadequate safety regulations, a scrappy licence system and a lax attitude toward drunk and underage driving are all blamed for accidents that kill an estimated 275 people every day.
But the biggest killer is arguably the growing numbers of vehicles hitting Indian roads every year, steered by drivers who lack basic motor skills and driving on roads that are incapable of supporting the massive volume of traffic.
It’s a problem that is being seen in other developing countries with booming economies that are making cars affordable to the masses.
The World Bank estimates that the number of deaths from car accidents globally will rise to 2 million per year by 2020 from 1.2 million unless driving skills are taught and road laws are enforced.
In India, the transport ministry estimates that the number of annual fatalities from road accidents might climb to 150,000 by 2015 due to the rapid growth of vehicle ownership in India.
Annual sales of passenger vehicles in India are set to nearly double to 2 million units by 2010 and sales of commercial vehicles may more than double to 1 million units in Asia’s third-largest economy.
Vehicle ownership has risen at an average rate of about 15 percent a year over the last decade, but road maintenance is under-funded, with only about a third of road needs being met.
“Unfortunately, we have no policy framework, and there are so many agencies involved with very little coordination between them. Blame must be shared equally at the institutional level, the engineering level and the consumer level,” said the World Bank’s Rohatgi.
The government plans to spend more than $500 billion over the next five years to upgrade its roads, ports, airports and other creaky and inadequate infrastructure.
But often, not all the money that is earmarked for a project actually gets there due to corruption and poor governance. The result is sub-standard construction and poor road maintenance.
While loopholes in the system put licences in the hands of those ill-equipped to drive, there is also a general apathy among consumers towards seat belts, air bags and even motorcycle helmets.
“Safety is unfortunately not a big part of the purchase decision of Indian consumers,” said Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of the popular Autocar magazine.
“Our best-selling small cars are typically not the safest vehicles on the road, because consumers are more worried about fuel efficiency and the cost of ownership, and would rather not pay for safety features such as air bags and anti-lock brakes.”
Vehicle makers are trying to fill the breach left by the government by setting up their own driver training schools.
“We do believe the need for training is becoming increasingly relevant due to the increase in vehicle volumes, high speed roads, enhanced performance of vehicles, and the requirement of specific skills for application vehicles,” said Debasis Ray, head of corporate communications at Tata Motors, India’s leading vehicle manufacturer.
Top car maker Maruti Suzuki India Ltd manages two training schools in Delhi with the state transport department. It has evaluated more than 400,000 clients, mostly commercial vehicle drivers, a spokesman said. It also runs about 35 driving schools along with its dealers and is setting up more.
Ford Motor Co is customizing its U.S.-based, teen-focused Driving Skills for Life program for drivers in developing auto markets including Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Hyundai Motor has a student traffic volunteers scheme in New Delhi and Chennai, while Tata Motors, the top bus and truck maker, trains commercial vehicle drivers.
Courses for truck drivers are seen as particularly crucial as a lack of trained heavy vehicle drivers may literally be holding back business activity in India as a scarcity of truck drivers hampers the transport of goods across the vast country.
“As more cars are sold, there is a demand for more drivers. Transporters also want drivers for commercial vehicles, where the need for training is perhaps most acute,” said Mohit Arora, managing director for India at JD Power Asia-Pacific.
“Tata has struggled with the fact that during the boom there weren’t enough experienced drivers, which can actually dent demand for trucks,” he said.
Editing by Ranjit Gangadharan and Megan Goldin