India's Silent Epidemic: Road Crashes

11/05/2013 11:46 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

45 people trapped inside a burning bus died in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh on Wednesday morning. The bus, reportedly speeding, hit a road divider and burst into flames. All but seven of the passengers perished within minutes, including an infant.

This grievous loss of life on India's roads is anything but rare. In the last four months alone headline after headline has reported about major road crashes involving buses around the country -- 20 killed in Punjab, 16 in Uttarakhand, 21 in Himachal Pradesh, 11 school children in Rajasthan. Such cases make national news, but everyday an average of 380 Indians die in road crashes of various kinds. Last year, 140,000 people lost their lives to the epidemic.

Despite this monumental loss of life, India's policymakers have failed to take action. Detailed investigations into road crashes are a rarity, officials in-charge of road safety are almost never held accountable, road design continues to be dangerous, and Indian laws around road safety remain insufficient and poorly enforced. To compare, 252 people died last year in terror attacks in India. India's Home Minister put the nation on high alert after every attack while all major political parties released statements condemning the violence. If concerned officials were found guilty of negligence they were transferred or fired. The best state and national level officers investigated the incidents and local media relentlessly highlighted any lapses in security.

Terror attacks are unquestionably different in the fear and outrage that they inspire. But in terms of loss of life, road crashes are a far more threatening menace. Over one million people have died in the past decade in India due to road crashes. Their sheer frequency and familiarity may account for why the general public expresses little anger over this loss of life. With almost no pressure on the government to address the problem, politicians have been nearly silent, even when some of their most dynamic leaders perish in road crashes.

Yet, leadership is what it will take to make a dent in this silent epidemic. Political leaders from across party lines in India must commit to action. That action must be alacritous, comprehensive, and focused on a five-pronged strategy -- passing a comprehensive national road safety law; establishing an empowered national lead agency to take charge of coordination; upgrading design and engineering standards for roads as well as vehicles; investing in a systems approach to trauma care; and incentivizing Indian universities and research institutions to conduct, research on the issue.

The effects of these actions may only emerge over the next decade but today we have an opportunity to take action that may save a million lives over that decade and we must not let that opportunity pass.

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