“If it’s not a one-way route, I close my eyes when we take a cab because the speed at which the oncoming vehicles zip past, I fear they might crash against us head-on” said US-based Krithika, while on vacation in Chennai.
However, it is not only non-Chennaiites who feel this fear. Many residents, especially women who ride two-wheelers, report feeling tense while on the road. And they have good reason to, as we have seen in an earlier article highlighting the incidence of road fatalities and injuries in the city.
But what makes Chennai roads so treacherous and what can citizens and administrators do to reverse the situation and keep the city accident-free?
Speed and accidents
Excessive speed, beyond the permitted limit, very often results in accidents. Excessive speed not only increases the chances of an accident, but the severity of injuries as well. According to WHO (World Health Organisation), an increase in speed by 1 km/hour increases the risk of an accident by 3% and the risk of a fatality by 4 to 5%. According to statistics, in developing countries, about 50% of the road accidents is attributed to over-speeding.
The WHO recommends speed limits appropriate to the function of specific roads. In Chennai, for example, if we consider the Choolaimedu High Road, it has a lot of small eateries and commercial establishments, besides two government schools and two temples. Consequently, there is always a lot of pedestrian and bicycle traffic throughout the day. The government’s mini bus also plies on this road.
Arumugam, a shopkeeper, informs of two recent instances when a pedestrian and a motorcyclist had a fall because of speeding two-wheelers. Going by WHO’s recommendation, therefore, the authorities would do well to reduce the speed limit in this congested road and other similar roads in Chennai.
But of course, even after that people have to take a conscious decision to stick to the speed limits, as pointed out by a traffic constable manning a junction near T Nagar.
“It all comes down to time management. If you leave on time, there is no need to hurry on the road,” says Jeyachandran, who has been part of a road safety awareness drive conducted by a club.
M Radhakrishnan, Founder of Thozhan, an NGO that has been raising awareness on road safety, suggests designing vehicles in a way that would make it impossible for them to cross a certain speed within urban limits.
According to NCRB data on 53 cities, Chennai recorded the most number of deaths due to drunken driving, 93 out of 348. With liquor being sold through government outlets, access to alcohol is not difficult. Drunken driving is rampant and it is difficult for the traffic police personnel to keep this problem under control.
“Some residents are irked if they are subjected to breathalyser tests. We are doing it for their own safety and that of other road users. They don’t realise that,” rues a traffic constable.
The permissible limit of alcohol in blood, formally termed Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC), is 0.03% (ie) 30 mg per 100 ml of blood. If the BAC goes up to 0.05%, it doubles the probability of an accident.
Liquor is almost inevitably a part of urban social gatherings today, but one must avoid driving after consuming alcohol or must get dropped home, says Dr Noel Kanakaraj, of Indian Road Safety & Welfare Trust (IRSWT) and author of a Tamil guide on road safety for learners.
The Chennai City Traffic Police (CCTP) also carries out awareness measures against drunken driving through billboards and LED displays at traffic junctions. Yet in 2016, the CCTP suspended 4057 driving licences and cancelled 622 licences of drunk drivers. However, this marks a reduction in suspension of licences by 68% and in cancellation by 60% from 2014, which does merit consideration that the campaigns might have had some impact.
Jumping signals is common in certain four-way intersections. “I always dread crossing the Valluvar Kottam junction. Usually the number of vehicles from Thirumalai road turning onto the Kodambakkam High Road is less. So those going from K H Road towards Vadapalani hardly heed the signals. They keep moving through red signals. If there are cars, I can easily cross along with the cars. Otherwise it’s extremely difficult,” says Prathiba who stays near Vidyodaya school.
Regular road users such as medical representative Kannan observe this in many junctions such as the ones on Inner Ring Road near Jai Nagar, Kodambakkam, under the Vepery bridge, Ashok Nagar and near YWCA on Poonamallee High Road.
Thozhan’s campaigns at traffic signals work in two-ways. At a red signal that lasts sixty seconds, Thozhan volunteers do a mime, a skit or a song on road safety for forty seconds or so. This hooks the attention of the road users and they wait at the signal; the message is also simultaneously conveyed. But Thozhan’s campaigns happen only on Sundays. “If we carry out campaigns in a sustained manner, I am sure the citizens’ attitude would change,” says Radhakrishnan confidently.
Not adhering to road rules
- Not wearing a helmet
Jeyan, a purchase officer in a private firm in Velachery, recalls an accident where he had a miraculous escape after his two-wheeler was hit by a truck. His helmet bore the impact and broke, but he escaped. According to WHO statistics, wearing a helmet reduces the risk of death by about 40% and the risk of severe injury by about 70%.
Most safety guidelines, including that of IRSWT, dictate that when you pick up the key to your two-wheeler, you should pick up the helmet too. Several private firms are also now taking initiatives to instil the habit of wearing a helmet among members of the community. For example, irrespective of whether the person is an employee or a visitor, a two-wheeler rider would be allowed entry into the premises of Ultramarine & Pigments in Vanagaram only if he is wearing a helmet.
- Not wearing seat belt
According to WHO, wearing a seat-belt reduces fatality risk in front-seat passengers by 40–50% and among those in the rear by 25 to 75%.
- Blinding lights
Aaron, a cab driver, finds the blinding headlights in Chennai roads disturbing. “Many don’t have the black stickers at the centre of the headlight. Some lights are so bright that in spite of a black sticker, the glare hits you. No one dips headlights these days,” he adds.
This applies to all categories of road users. A risky thing in particular, and one noticed often, is that people, especially children, keep their hand outside the window in buses and cars.
“Women who ride two-wheelers do not fasten the loose ends of their sarees and dupattas. They take offence if you tell them. There have been several accidents because dupattahs got caught in their own bike wheels or in a bigger vehicle,” says a traffic police constable in Vepery.
He adds that several accidents involve students travelling on foot boards of buses. “I see school students scrambling to get into buses and hanging onto the windows. The government should increase the number of buses near schools during rush hours so that there is no foot-board travel,” observes Narayanan, a resident of Purasawalkam.
Harini, a resident of Choolaimedu, finds jaywalking a menace at the Choolaimedu High Road – Nelson Manickam Road junction. “Pedestrians walk against the green light, creating a risk for themselves as well as posing a risk for those driving a vehicle,” she says.
Traffic design and road features in Chennai
Most of the reasons discussed so far apply to the whole of India. There is no sufficient data – such as that for Coimbatore, provided by the Coimbatore-based Road Accident Sampling System India (RASSI) – to pin the exact reason for Chennai topping the list of accident-prone cities.
However, based on calls received by 108 ambulance service and information provided by police, a total of 31 stretches were reported as accident-prone.
“When you drive from Pallikaranai to Tambaram, you have to negotiate a near-90 degree turn. In spite of the warning boards, I see many small mishaps near this turning,” says Srinivasan, a resident of Selaiyur.
Prem, a resident of Kilpauk, finds no logic in the location of speed breakers. He cites the example of one near his house, which is a calm stretch and does not have much traffic. Yet, many bikers have had falls because the speed breakers caught them unawares. In many places, there is no indication that there is a speed breaker. “In some places, they are so high that the undercarriage of your vehicle scrapes against them,” says Jeyachandran, pointing out the faulty dimensions in the speed breakers.
Harini points out that the structures created for aesthetic purposes sometimes prove to be a hindrance, such as the traffic island with the statue of a folk dancer near Loyola College. She says that for those coming from Mahalingapuram and turning right, it is difficult to see the vehicles coming in from Nungambakkam because of this statue.
While commuting to and from work, Latha finds the Arya Gowda Road a nightmare. “It’s a two-way road for one. It’s also a bus route. Every 50m, there are branch roads in either direction, all of them with heavy traffic. And there is no signal at all,” she says in exasperation. Lack of signals in interior roads is one cause for higher incidence of accidents on these roads.
According to Sumana Narayanan of Citizen Consumer & Civic Action Group (CAG), that works in sustainable transportation besides other areas, city roads are designed for fast and smooth flow of motorised traffic. Footpaths are removed to facilitate this, forcing pedestrians onto the road. She also points out that dividers and barricades – often badly built and located – pop up suddenly. All these factors need to be taken into consideration while designing roads and traffic and wherever possible, the faulty elements need to be rectified.
The way forward
Jeyachandran feels that the use of technology could have a significant mitigating effect, such as the speed cameras en route Mahabalipuram that are effective in curbing over-speeding.
Radhakrishnan suggests sustained and better enforcement of laws and stringent punishment for traffic violations. The present punishments and fines are too meagre to act as effective deterrents.
Sumana of CAG advocates better accountability for poor road design and a better data collection system to understand the problems better and find appropriate solutions. She adds that some of these concerns are being addressed in the Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
“Laws and rules are fine. But knowing what causes accidents, it is for the citizens of Chennai to take a conscious decision to follow traffic rules and stay safe,” reiterates Jeyachandran.