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?
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. Views expressed are personal. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.