With at least 135,000 people killed annually in road accidents, India has more traffic fatalities than anywhere in the world. Without coherent regulations, this number is set to grow. Murali Krishnan reports.
In one of the deadliest road accidents ever recorded in India, 61 people, including 10 children, were killed earlier this month when an overcrowded bus plunged into a gorge in the southern Indian state of Telangana.
The accident happened on Kondagattu Road, at a location where at least 11 other incidents have occurred claiming at least 50 lives. Another accident was waiting to happen.
"Very little has been done to make the road safer," T Krishna Prasad, director-general of the Road Safety Authority in Hyderabad, told DW.
"The accidents occurred when vehicles were approaching the steep curve that had no crash barriers. The unscientific construction of the road was the major cause."
A growing public safety crisis
Deadly road accidents occur with tiresome regularity on Indian roads. However, a sense of urgency on road safety has yet to take root for officials and the public alike, even as the safety record gets worse every year.
"The main reason for this is that the problem of road traffic accidents does not belong to any specific agency, either at central or state or local government levels," Sanjay Kumar Singh, an Indian road expert, told DW, adding that responsibility for vehicle testing, road design and urban planning is divided among many agencies.
"Without increased efforts and new initiatives, the total number of road traffic deaths in India is likely to cross the mark of 250,000 by the year 2025," he said.
"There is an urgent need to recognize the worsening situation and to take appropriate action," added Singh.
Indian government statistics paint a grim picture. Every minute, there is one road accident in India. Every four minutes, there is one road death. Drunken driving was one of the leading causes of road fatalities.
India's capital, Delhi, has the highest number of fatal accidents among all the cities across the country, with five deaths every day. Around 72 percent of road accident deaths are in the age range between 15 and 44 years old. It is estimated that at least 135,000 people die annually in India from traffic accidents.
India has only about 2 percent of the world's motor vehicles but accounts for over 12 percent of its traffic accident deaths, making the Indian road network the most unsafe in the world.
Infrastructure overhaul is needed
According to a recent study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, traffic accidents cost India nearly 3 percent of its annual GDP a year, which amounts to $58 billion (€49.5 billion).
Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government drafted the Road Transport and Safety Bill in 2014 to replace the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988, which currently governs road safety in the country, the legislation is still stuck in parliament.
Speeding, drunk driving and driving and without safety helmets are responsible for a high number of deaths in road crashes. However, dismal road quality, poorly maintained vehicles, inferior road design and engineering are equally important factors.
Read more: India bus crash leaves dozens dead
"If the bill is made into law, it will propose harsher penalties for traffic offenses, require that automakers add more safety features and hold consultants, contractors and civic agencies accountable for the wrong design, or poor construction and maintenance of roads. That is badly needed," Vikram Kumar, an engineer from the Central Road Research Institute, told DW.
Experts agree that road safety is a multi-sector and multi-disciplinary issue, in which coordination of all relevant agencies across all tiers of government is critical. Countries with well-functioning safety systems have a strong multi-stakeholder coordination mechanism that helps to focus to the implementation of road safety policies.
The rapid rise in accidents is also caused by road infrastructure that has not been able to keep up with the phenomenal increase in the volume of vehicles. India is expected to be the world's third-largest car market after China and the US by 2020, according to researcher IHS Automotive.