How Speed Limits That Make Little Sense Are Adding To The Road Safety Crisis In India

Posted on December 21, 2015 in Society, Staff Picks

By Ravitej Prasad

Image source: Wikipedia
Image source: Wikipedia

In a tragic incident late on the night of December 14, an over-speeding car hit a divider, killing the co-passenger in Delhi’s South Extension area. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 48,654 persons died in 2014 in road accidents due to over-speeding. This means that almost 33% of over-speeding cases result in fatalities. Incidentally, over-speeding also remains the single biggest cause of road accident deaths in India with over 36% of all road traffic accident deaths occurring solely due to this reason.

The Institute of Road Traffic Education (IRTE) recently conducted a detailed study of traffic management for the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D). In the study, it was found that 100% of vehicles were driven above the prescribed speed on select National Highways at spots with speed limit signages. This is a clear indicator that not only are the speed limit signages ignored by drivers, but the percentage of vehicles flouting the limit shows the unscientific nature in which speed limits are assigned in the first place, as they are not in sync with vehicular capabilities, road geometry, and even road quality.

Having lower speed limits is an exercise followed by enforcement authorities across the world, as it arguably gives the authorities a false understanding that road users would automatically adhere to the limits, in addition to easier interception of offending vehicles. But logic dictates that road users will continue to drive at a speed that they may think is safe, with complete disregard to the prescribed speed limit as may be displayed on the highway. As an example, the Mumbai-Pune expressway has the lowest speed limit for any expressway in the world – 80 km/h – yet has the highest number of accidents and fatalities for a highway of its class.

In fact, in a study conducted in about 20 countries, it was found that up to 90% of drivers believe they are above-average, low-risk drivers and that they can drive over the limit without placing themselves at high risk. Although human perception of highway safety is often misplaced, and inaccurate personal judgment of one’s own driving is a leading cause of mishaps, better road geometry with accurate speed limit determinants can, in fact, lead to uniformity and better enforcement.

Another drawback to having lower speed limits is that with the absence of proper accident investigation as is the case with India, road contractors are indirectly allowed to avoid liability in case of any accident due to improper road design, as it becomes easy to blame the driver for driving above the speed limit, even if it is set unreasonably low. Even enforcement authorities frequently ignore over-speeding as an offence due to the ambiguous nature of setting blanket speed limits on differing classes of roads.

Having said that, increased speed limits does not mean that they be done arbitrarily without scientific understanding of the road geometry. A blanket speed limit on a particular class of roads is neither advised nor desirable. It was only after 25 years, in August 2014, that the government decided to revise the speed limits on all National Highways by way of a notification. Light motor vehicles are now permitted a maximum of 100 km/h.

However, the nature of the notification is such that this speed limit has been set without taking into consideration the difference in quality of different National Highways. Indian highways have seen a constant expansion since independence with projects being fast-tracked now. We have 2-laned, 4-laned, 6-laned as well as 8-laned National Highways, each of which warrant speed limits based on comprehensive research on the quantum and type of traffic, type and level of development alongside, road function, proportion of vulnerable road users, environmental emissions, grade separations and the presence of merging or diverging lanes.

Having safer roads is not a simple question with a binary solution, but a complex network of different aspects that come into play. Effective enforcement, being an important pillar to having safe roads, requires effectiveness of all these aspects including speed limit indicators. The question, therefore, is not to whether increase or decrease speed limits to ensure safer roads, but whether a scientific analysis of speed limits on all classes of roads, on a case to case basis, is a necessity or not. It’s time our policy makers agree that it is.

About the author: Ravitej Prasad is Senior Associate, Policy & Research at SaveLIFE Foundation, a non-profit organisation committed to improving road safety in India.