India is rapidly developing its highways system in order to facilitate transport and stimulate development. But highway development brings with it challenges and risks. Rapid increase in vehicle population has led to a rise in preventable accidents and deaths on our highways. Much more needs to be done to tackle these problems and follow best practices from other countries.
New highways seek to free up the flow of traffic by making it signal free to the extent possible, especially in urban areas. However, traffic density has also risen dramatically in our metros and users of highways range from two wheelers including bicycles to large trucks and trailers. In addition, pedestrians and animals need to cross the highways, while traditional users such as bicyclists and rickshaws, animal, and hand-drawn carts continue to use these roads. The problems are much more complex than in most developed countries. Simply banning some categories of users from the highways is not the best solution and may be seen as unfair.
While highways and roads have been constructed, there are many gaps, such as bad engineering, improper banking of curves, poor rainwater drainage, very poor signage, and poor lighting and reflecting devices for night-time usage. Most of these can be rectified, but with costs. Such deficiencies in roads would be illegal in many countries. The codes for roads and highways need to be updated for modern times, and enforced with penalties. When roads are being repaired, nobody bothers to put up warning signs posted sufficiently ahead to warn users. Dumping of construction material and storing it on roads is also common. These are acts that endanger users and should be prohibited.
Road users need far better education on how to behave and use the roads. The requirements of driving licenses need to be updated and enforced. Information should be provided through TV and print media for users of different categories on how to make safe use of roads where low and higher speed traffic coexist. Such material is available from other countries and can be adapted easily. The licensing requirements for heavier vehicles such as trucks, buses, and earth-moving machinery need to be made more stringent to improve safety.
With new highways coming up with dual carriageways, it is quite common to see users coming the wrong way, leading to a high risk of collisions. We should insist on proper no-entry and one-way signs used in most countries and enforce them. Unaccompanied animals cross the road at random, even on high speed highways, resulting in hazards. In rural areas, people and animal crossings of highways are common, and designated crossing points need to be marked on roads with advance warning signs.
Pedestrians are the most vulnerable of users, even if they use only the designated zebra crossing. Children even of young age, unescorted by adults, are seen crossing the roads amidst moving traffic. In many countries it is a serious offense not to stop a vehicle when children are crossing the roads, or to pass a school bus picking up or dropping children. Schools should realize that their responsibility does not end at the school gate, but also involves arranging volunteers to ensure children cross the road safely at crossings.
Deficiencies in vehicles can increase dangers, especially at night. It is common to see trucks and heavy vehicles with defective rear lights and brake lights moving on our roads or with oversized or excessive loads, which can pose serious dangers. Broken down vehicles are rarely moved to the left side low-speed areas but are left in place without any warning signs placed at a reasonable distance behind. At night, under fog conditions, this can be lethal, especially on highways. Police check posts appear suddenly without any advance warning creating traffic congestion. All vehicles, and in particular heavy vehicles, should have their equipment in good condition and should not be overloaded. This aspect needs to be enforced more strictly.
We often entrust the lives of passengers to buses driven by persons with low skill levels. Drivers of buses carry a heavy responsibility and must be properly trained in safe driving. Pick up and drop off of passengers should only be done on the road side at designated stops and not in the middle of the road, or on highways in the midst of high speed traffic.
Modern highways are good, but drivers need to be aware of staying in lanes, signaling while changing lanes, and keeping adequate distance from the vehicle in front. In case of missing an exit, it is better to continue to the next one and come back. Backing up along the highway to get back to a passed exit is a sure invitation to disaster. Many of our drivers cannot or do not read the road signs, recognize the exits. Speed limits should be realistic and enforced. Drivers often do not seem to be aware that speed limit signs are to be observed.
Road user behavior inevitably reflects broader social behavior. Courtesy and thinking of the welfare of others is something that needs to be valued and inculcated at all levels of society. While our philosophy and religious traditions strongly emphasize these things, we seem to have lost our way.