In the United States, even a visit to the local store to pick up milk is a multi-step process. The kids are first placed in the back seat of the car in a car seat and buckled up. The driver then fastens his/her seat belt, adjusts the rear-view mirror, and drives on. All these safety steps are forgotten the moment you set foot in India. Kids are allowed to sit in the front seat, sometimes even on the lap of the driver. The trip to the market on a scooter or moped is almost always without a helmet. It is perfectly normal to speed with your dupatta flying and kids perching behind on the pillion seat.
Riding Kinetic Honda without a helmet—yes, I have done that. Letting kids ride in the front seat of the car—guilty as charged. I admit, with remorse, that I let down my guard the moment I set foot in India. I should know better. I lost a dear friend—a budding poet, a college lecturer and a mother of two young boys—to a motor-cycle accident. This happened on her daily commute route. Just two blocks from home, the motor-bike she was riding ran into a pot-hole. The impact threw her off the bike and she fell head first on the road sustaining fatal injury. If she had worn a helmet, had there been a well paved road, if the vehicle had been sturdier, she would be here today, guiding her sons through adolescence.
“Profiles of accidents in India are so much more different than the types of accidents that happen here in the United States,” says Jeya Padmanaban, C.E.O of JP Research, a firm that specializes in statistical collection and analysis of accident data. As the head of the safety research organization, she is taking her mission of safer roads to India. “Accidents are the fourth leading cause of death in India. Yet there is very little scientific evaluation done on why these accidents happen and what can be done to prevent them.” In contrast, various private and government organizations collect this valuable data in the United States. When accidents happen, data about the brand of the vehicle, the type and angle of collision, the nature of injury, information about the weather condition and the topology of the road is collected. With enough data, statisticians are often able to come to life-saving conclusions. “For example, by analyzing thousands of accidents involving child mortality, researchers were able to recommend to the U.S. government that children should be placed in the car seat and buckled up until the age of 6. This has ensured the safety of the children during road travel. We wanted to do similar things to raise the safety standards of Indian roads.”
JP Research, which is headquartered in Mountain View, California, has pioneered several safety related projects for the government as well as the automobile industry. The company has done statistical and engineering research on vehicle rollovers, vehicle roof strength, seat restraint systems, airbags, and injuries related to older drivers. In addition, Padmanaban provides expert testimony in court for product litigation in the areas of automobile and fire safety.
“The Tamil Nadu police is headed by Letika Saran, the first woman to do so in the state. She is very concerned about traffic safety and has been very supportive of our mission. That was the reason we decided to open up our Indian branch in Tamil Nadu,” says Padmanaban about setting up the first accident data collection and analysis center in Chennai, India. JP Research, India, is funded by a consortium of Japanese and U.S .car manufacturers, who want to understand the safety features needed in vehicles for Indian conditions. “When an accident happens, we are immediately notified by the Tamil Nadu Police and our team rushes to the accident site and is able to collect valuable data from the scene.” Information from the scene helps in finding out if anything at all can be done in the future to prevent such an accident. It helps in answering important questions. Was the rear crash because of the broken tail-lights on truck? Was the position of the stone divider the cause of the accident? Does the mile indicator need to be moved? Is there a need for a speed breaker on the road? Does the vehicle need better tires? Did the angle of the turn on the road cause the fatality?
“Statistics show that rear-side collisions are more common in India. Motor cycles and other smaller vehicles slide right under larger trucks, especially during the nights, since most trucks drive without their tail lights.
“As we learn more from the data we give information back to the community by conducting seminars. Local police and law enforcement organizations can then use this information to come out with regulations for safer roads. We also provide feedback to the auto manufactures about the safety features that need to be added in the vehicles that are sold in India. “
India is rapidly becoming an industrialized nation. As Indians become economically stable and their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met they look towards buying fancier and bigger vehicles. “As more and more vehicles enter the Indian roads the overall safety standards need to be increased. Safer Indian roads is our mission,” adds Padmanabhan.
“Recent data show an increase in road accidents involving NRIs” warns Padmanaban. So, next time you are filling your suitcases for that India trip, make sure to pack some caution as well.
Sujatha Ramprasad loves to read poetry and philosophy. She is an ardent fan of Harry Potter.