Chennai’s high ranking in the annual National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data on road accidents has been a cause for concern in recent years. The city has seen over 5000 road accidents in 2021. It stands second behind Delhi in terms of road accident fatalities.
What makes Chennai’s roads so unsafe? Is it poor road design? Lack of adherence to traffic rules? Is poor enforcement also a factor in the increasing number of road accidents?
Citizen Matters organised a tweet chat with experts who weighed in on why Chennai’s roads have turned into a death trap and what can be done to remedy this dire situation.
The panel was comprised of social activist Mahimai Doss, urban planner Pavithra Sriram, senior researcher Sumana Narayanan and Professor Venkatesh Balasubramanian of IIT Madras.
Major reasons for road accidents in Chennai
Looking into the root cause of the frequent accidents on Chennai roads, the panel listed design, infrastructure and human behaviour as some of the main reasons the city sees a high number of such incidents and fatalities.
“Poor infrastructure and design such as potholes, blind turns, few pedestrian crossings at road level and mixed traffic lead to unsafe roads. Driving indiscipline and poor implementation of the law (MVAA 2019) add to the sad state of road safety”, says Sumana.
“Fundamentally our driving behaviours are poor. But what essentially supports this attitude is the extent of freedom our road geometries give drivers, therefore leading us to more vehicular crashes and also harming vulnerable road users” says Pavithra.
Car-centric planning has contributed to the rise in road accidents. “This is the situation on every road in Chennai. We are liberal to our car drivers and extremely conservative in our approach toward the needs of the pedestrian. And motorists don’t even get proportionately taxed for the infrastructure built for them”, says Pavithra.
“Frequent digging of roads, corruption in road laying too contributed to the number of accidents”, says Mahimai.
Lack of discipline due to non-existent fear of law and constant constriction of roads due to repairs and encroachments that puts pedestrian conflicting with motor vehicle are some reasons for the high number of road accidents in Chennai according to Dr Venkatesh. He also adds that the explosion in the number of personal vehicles, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19, is also a factor in adding stress to the streets of Chennai.
Short and long-term measures for mitigation
On what can be done immediately to make Chennai roads safer, the panel offered a range of suggestions.
In the short term, Pavithra suggests sensitisation of all road users to the needs of cyclists and pedestrians. “Respecting cyclists and pedestrians and encouraging events that promote the same can be done in the short term. Other actions would be to fix the road geometry through tactical improvements, enforcement of speed limits and penalising unruly driving behaviours.”
Sumana stresses better enforcement in the short term. “Unpredictable enforcement drives, an anytime-anywhere approach, and urban tactical measures that are low-cost interventions helping in promoting pedestrian safety can be a short-term solution.”
Dr Venkatesh bats for scientific ways to tackle the issue. “Strict and scientific enforcement of violations that are a high and leading cause for crashes and fatalities is a great first step. Minor engineering rectifications can have a big impact on identified high-frequency accident zones.”
Mahimai proposes reforming the method of issuing licenses, with stricter tests and screening and the removal of middlemen such as driving schools from the process of obtaining a license.
Long-term suggestions proposed by the panel include a redesign of roads, disincentivising private vehicle ownership, stricter penalties for violations, congestion pricing, road safety education and improvements to public transport.
Road design and road safety in Chennai
The impact of poor road design and traffic management on the number of road accidents was also a point highlighted by the panel.
Sumana says, “Improved road design equals improved driver behaviour. Properly installed traffic lights, roundabouts, refuge areas in pedestrian crossings and well-maintained footpaths help reduce road crashes significantly. Even small design changes such as the installation of rumble strips, appropriate signages, and tabletop crossings can reap effective results.”
“Traffic calming measures such as lane width narrowing, designated one-way traffic flows and pedestrianisation of streets during specific hours of the day help in routing and reducing traffic congestion”, says Sumana.
Pavithra points out the lack of consequences faced by officials who are responsible for poor roads. “Transportation is one of the few professions where nearly 1,55,622 people in India can lose their lives in one year (as per NCRB, in 2021) and no one in a position of responsibility is in danger of being penalised or at the least, losing their job. While we can discuss at length about our poor driving behaviours, our road designs and the attitude of municipal engineers to provide utmost comfort to drivers, promote these behaviours.”
Mahimai says that the lack of a long-term vision leads to frequent redesign to accommodate the increasing number of vehicles. “Need to design road in such a way that flyovers must be part of initial planning. For example, OMR was not properly designed which has lead to more traffic jams at Sollinganallur and Thoraipakkam. Unnecessary flyovers must be demolished.”
“It is important to have better road engineering and traffic management”, says Dr Venkatesh.
Felix John, Bicycle Mayor of Chennai, adds, “ Planning and design have to be people-centric and not vehicle-centric. Traffic routing will be a consequence of people-centric design.”
Read more: How can Chennai improve pedestrian safety?
Poor road behaviour causing accidents in Chennai
Despite provisions in the law, poor road behaviour does not attract a penalty that can act as a deterrent.
Sumana says, “Research shows how increased fines have significantly changed the driver’s negligence, resulting in improved compliance with road rules and reduced road crash fatalities. The provision of strict fines are a part of MVAA2019 but have not been implemented in MP and TN yet. The increasing number of road fatalities in TN is a serious cue to enforce the increased fines.”
Mahima suggests looking into traffic violation history to determine fines. On enforcement, he says “ We need to install cameras at regular intervals and send the fine receipt directly to the residential address of the violators. Deduction from their bank accounts must be looked into.”
Pavithra says, “Enforcement is a big piece. Yet it is only remedial. There needs to be an earnest attempt to promote Non-Motorised Transport infrastructure and efficient public transportation systems. And mega private projects in the city need to take responsibility to improve congestion, safety, and mobility.”
G Ananthakrishnan, a journalist who writes on mobility, adds, “Penalties can be moderate, not high, and obedience comes with fear of enforcement. Enforcement is missing in Chennai. New MVAA wrongly raised fine amounts, which politicians hesitate to impose. Even stopping a rogue driver, questioning will deter, stop violations.”
Lessons from other cities for Chennai
Pavithra shares key lessons from global cities for Chennai. “Cities across the world are fighting to reduce road fatalities. Introducing a Vision Zero plan needs to be a multi-faceted program. We need to find innovative measures to reduce motorists on the road. The famous Amsterdam example of the oil price surge in the 70s got them to innovate their mobility patterns. Examples of traffic calming measures are plenty across the world.”
“Transformative Transportation is the key. Medellin and NYC are great examples of cities that were earlier dedicated to cars being transformed into one dedicated to, and in service of, its people today. They have incrementally invested in scalable infrastructure to build their future”, says Pavithra.
Ananthkrishnan says, “ Steep learning curve ahead for a city that drags its feet on basic traffic enforcement. We could learn from Stockholm, Singapore, and London. They have systems to cut traffic, boost public transport, have zero tolerance for violations and more buses, and full pedestrianisation.”
Mahimai feels that making public transport in the city more accessible such as lowering the fares for the Metro would make an impact in reducing road accidents in Chennai.
Sumana points to examples from other Indian cities that Chennai can emulate. “Examples of leveraging technology in monitoring driver behaviour and enforcing road rules – smart traffic lights, speed cameras – should be taken up from Delhi and Hyderabad. Chennai can also prioritise children’s safety on roads through design by borrowing lessons from the “safe school zones” adopted in various parts of Delhi. Pune has an exclusive public parking policy which effectively helps manage parking encroachments and traffic congestion. All these will help create a road environment that is safe for all.”
A mix of policy intervention for behavioural change, lessons from other cities, prioritising public transport and greater sensitisation among road users are some measures that can bring back safety in Chennai roads.
Read the complete discussion here.