Coimbatore Accident Raises Ugly Questions About Road Safety in India

Death came instantly for most of the 19 men, women and children in the horrific head-on collision on a stretch of National Highway (NH544) along the Avinashi-Salem bypass, about 40 km from Coimbatore. A Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) scheduled service between Bengaluru and Ernakulam collided head-on with a container truck headed opposite way in the wee hours of 20 Feb, 2020.

The KSRTC bus was carrying over 40 passengers (official numbers ranged from 42 to 48, hours after the accident) when it was reportedly rammed by the truck that jumped the median. As per reports, 19 are dead and over 25 are injured, some seriously. That’s a 50% casualty rate – almost half the bus is dead. This is evident in images shared by eyewitnesses where the right side of the bus is seen completely mangled.

Maybe we should face some facts.

India’s record at road safety is inconsistent with its global aspirations.

As per a 2019 report from the World Resources Institute, India has the worst road safety record in the world. The report goes on to state that ‘India accounts for about 2% of motor vehicles globally, yet it’s responsible for more than 11% of road traffic deaths.’  This is a disturbing if not entirely surprising statistic. I have written about certain attitudes that feed into this deathwish of ours (read it here & here).

The statistics can be debated till the coffins come home. One thing is certain:

We are a nation that takes road safety lightly

Accidents like the recent one find just a corner in leading news media while policymakers are busy putting their mouth where their brains & money should be. Let me illustrate with personal example.

As a resident of Bengaluru and native of Kerala, I am a frequent traveller on the route where families lost their loved ones in the wee hours of Feb 20, 2020. I have traveled this route on many wheels – from air conditioned, multi-axle ‘sleep like a baby’ Airavat Volvos of KSRTC (K for Karnataka in this case) to Rajahamsa Executive Non-AC services, and my own Volkswagen.

What stands out is the total negligence to working conditions drivers have to endure just to keep a job. Coming from the well-regulated pilot community that sanctifies ‘flight & duty time limitations’ (FDTL) and ‘pilot fatigue’, I find our utter disregard for Indian truckers & bus drivers’ human factors (HFACS) totally inconsistent with safety. I called this out as a McFatigue Sandwich in my article on aviation fatigue. If a well-regulated industry like aviation suffers from fatigue, guess what must be the state of road transportation.

The KSRTC bus stand in central Palakkad – like the Shanti Nagar Bus Depot of its eponymous cousin from Bengaluru – is an abject example of how little we care. KSRTC crew who have finished their overnight duty sleep under parked Volvo buses enduring high-decibel noise, sapping heat & humidity, blood-sucking mosquitoes and an indifferent local population, only to repeat this day after every single day.

Drivers who drive by night need to rest by day. It is common sense, not rocket science. Nobody can work to a roster where driving during WOCL (Window of Circadian Low, between midnight to 4 AM) is the norm, unless supported by healthy rostering rules, regulations, and well-planned schedules that ensure crew get adequate ‘off time’ to guard against silent killers like ‘accumulated fatigue’. All this in an environment that supports the law in spirit, not just in letter. We are far away from that in road safety. How many of us know what an Indian trucker or bus driver’s life is all about? How many of us think HFACS when we book those attractive RedBus tickets?

My parents live a furlong away from a madhouse called KSRTC Bus Depot in Palakkad, Kerala. During frequent road trips (well planned, catering for FDTL, sleep & ‘layovers’), I often ponder over the dismal state of driver safety in services that ferry highly-educated folks like us to our holiday destinations. Drivers drive through the night daily over stretches that provide ‘facilities’, but no rest, recreation or privacy.

On the Bengaluru-Palakkad-Kochi stretch, like any other roadway in India, “swalpa adjust maadi” (please adjust) rules supreme. Often, crew and passengers argue; the rules of the game are loaded in favour of convenience, not safety. Well-connected passengers just want to get to their destination. They are barely interested in calling out a failing system even if they see and survive one. They ride with the misplaced belief that they bought “safety” with the bus ticket.

Hardly the case, as accident statistics will reveal. All of us have a little blood on hand today for outsourcing discipline to those who prioritize ‘moolah’ over safety.

Imagine driving through the night and having to spend layovers battling poor facilities, stinking dysfunctional toilets, sending updates to company and family, filling log sheets, responding to passenger calls – all the while multiplexing as driver and conductor, or both. This is the life of “cabin crew” from KSRTC or any established private sector operator in road transportation.

Spare a thought for the unorganized sector – one where truckers & drivers have no choice but to “lump it”. They “water the grass”, eat from roadside dhabas, sleep in truck lay-byes , and – if that’s not enough – reel under new age electronic distractions, with no help from a community that simply enables their exploitation.

Is it any surprise an accident happened? Now who is to blame?

“If you survive, you will be arrested; If you don’t, you will be blamed”

That is the mantra which rules this sector. Time to question why.

The Coimbatore accident should make us all sit up, acknowledge the gaps and push for reforms in “road safety”. Think about this before you plan the next road trip:

  • How much and under what conditions has the average Indian driver slept and rested, if at all?
  • Do drivers and conductors / cleaners share duties at the wheel? Are they supposed to do this? Is it allowed by law or are they pushed into doing this by exploitative agencies?
  • What enroute facilities are available to transportation crew to rest & recuperate during intervening halts / layovers?
  • What systems are in place to monitor “fatigue” level of transportation crew? Are such systems implemented in letter & spirit?
  • After every accident, Indian police “arrest” the driver (if he or she doesn’t abscond, out of fear for law or lynching). How does this improve a system impervious to HFACS for decades? Is there an alternative model that can be mandated?
  • Are our vehicles and highways designed to withstand the cruel reality of road travel in India? If not, why do we continue to charge a heavy “toll” even as body bags pile-up each day? Does the money trail from “toll collection” lead to a logical enhancement in transportation safety?
  • How come a few good men are left fighting the shameful state of affairs with personal initiative in the wake of every accident? Who should answer for the blood on our hands we all wash so conveniently in fleeting moments of public outrage after such horrific accidents?
  • Even after bearing the ignominy of being the worst in road safety, why is it that we do not have a central agency like the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate and implement lessons learnt from across the spectrum of transportation?

You can add many more points to the above list. In the 21st Century, how come we have gotten used to such bloody statistics? Isn’t this disconcerting?

If the drivers aren’t safe, how can you be?

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© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. Views expressed are personal. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com.

I am extremely sorry for those who have lost loved ones in avoidable accidents. The latest one that claimed 19 lives on 20th Feb 2020 near Coimbatore should wake us up. Shame on us if we cannot reform.

 

19 thoughts on “Coimbatore Accident Raises Ugly Questions About Road Safety in India

  1. KPS, this is heartfelt, timely and insightful. The world over highways are meant to transport vehicles at speed. But without adequate safeguards – engineering and managerial — they become deathtraps. That’s why we have a disproportionately large number of accidents on highways in India. What a shame.

  2. Agree with all your points…. driver comfort and wellbeing are very important to road safety. Also important to consider what sort of emergency care services we provide on the highway. Often the nearest hospital is miles away and there is no easy way to contact them,

  3. Absolutely agree with every word that’s so well articulated. We pay scant regard to the life and Living conditions of drivers..and if God forbid , something goes wrong, we blame it conveniently on destiny..Kismat kharab tha..

  4. Couldn’t agree with you more but we find sleep, rest, holiday etc , wasteful actions. Sometimes we even look down upon them. Be it for students, working professionals, athletes or house wives. It is more of a mentality barrier that we need to change as a society.

  5. “Whose driver is he anyway”?
    KPS, well thought of and equally well articulated. Remember the airport bus driver who rammed into a Spice Jet aircraft at Kolkata, couple of years back? Same story!
    You rightly asked ‘who is responsible for driver safety?’
    The Colgan Air accident to a Q-400, at Buffalo brought out the culpability of organisational policies. How the “Chain” was built up to cause an active failure, that was linked to company policies, was amply demonstrated. NTSB does a thorough job and national policy changes are made after most such investigations. Pilot experience of minimum 1500 hours for flying fare paying passengers was mandated after the Colgan Air debacle.
    Over here, even with strict policies on FDTL, aviation companies try to find loopholes and maximise profits! And with heavy vehicle commercial drivers, “Whose driver is he anyway”?

    1. Very pertinent points. There’s a dire need, perhaps an osmosis of lessons learnt at great cost of lives from different transportation models. Invariably, in our context the driver becomes fall guy thereby hiding the deep rooted problems and organisational failures.

  6. Very well highlighted KPS. The facilities enroute our highways need urgent attention for both passengers and more so for the bus drivers and staff. Hope Authorities and Employers look into the matter seriously.

  7. While praying for those wbo lost their life on the road, I would blame the traffic authorities for these accidents. I had witnessed many misses on this route. All trucks and buses fly on the fast lanes. In areas like Krishnagiri and dharmapuri they occupy all the 3 lanes. Unless police stop these fast lane heavy occupiers we continue to witness loss of many more lives.. Heavy vehicles must follow lane traffic and speed rules.

  8. I totally agree with you KPS. I do have one observation, especially for intra-city buses. The seat of the driver should be positioned ahead of the front wheel and at the same level as that of a guy driving a Nano/ Maruti 800. This one change, as per me, will make a huge difference to the way these buses ply within the city. Once the bus driver is aware that in case of a collision he is equally vulnerable, he will shun the “give a damn” attitude towards cars and 2/3 wheelers.

  9. This is one subject I have been thinking about for a long time. The US mandates rest time for truckers…and somewhere else max 8hours on road. Also regular check of glucose levels of drivera if diabetic while on road.
    But this FDTL is only seen in aviation. Even in healthcare, there are doctors who work and work 24/7…no rest…do surgeries without adequate rest…mistakes are bound to happen….
    The legal profession has strict time of work…weekends off…summer holidays….
    Perhaps the only reasons FDTL is for flight is because the plane is expensive…and the number of souls are very much higher than that in a bus or even at a hospital….

  10. Totally agree with KPs observations.Our basic attitude is how to circumvent rules and regulations at every possible occasions and we get sadistic pleasure out of it.I don’t care has become part of our life.The basic self discipline should start from the formative stage. The society should demand and implement the same.Long back I happened to visit Mozambique, one of the poorest nations in the world.But I was astonished to see their traffic discipline, no horns, waiting patiently for their turn n the heavy traffic.We need to identify and select individuals, who are devoted to public services without ulterior motives.We have a long way to go.

  11. Years of apathy and little respect for human life continue to plague our attitude towards Road safety. Unfortunately ‘Survival instincts’ reign supreme and all of us tend to save that extra minute bypassing basic safety. We as a society need to inculcate safety consciousness.

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