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Anarchy on Wheels Makes World’s Deadliest Roads Deadlier

Cars, pedestrians, carts and motorcycles move down a congested street in Mumbai. Mumbai needs a 42 percent increase in traffic officers to tackle the growing challenge, said B.K. Upadhayay, the joint commissioner of police for traffic in Mumbai. Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg
Cars, pedestrians, carts and motorcycles move down a congested street in Mumbai. Mumbai needs a 42 percent increase in traffic officers to tackle the growing challenge, said B.K. Upadhayay, the joint commissioner of police for traffic in Mumbai. Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg

Last month was a grim one on India’s roads.

One of the country’s top computer programmers died when he was hit by a speeding car. A policeman perished after allegedly being rammed by an irate driver. And a newly appointed member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet was killed after a car crash left him with a ruptured liver and fractured spine.

The deaths illustrate the downside of India’s motorization: Its roads are the world’s deadliest, with 15 percent of all traffic fatalities and only 1 percent of the motor vehicles, according to the World Bank.

Untrained drivers, lax traffic-law enforcement and poorly designed roads are fueling the epidemic of deaths. One person dies on India’s roads every 5 minutes, according to the World Health Organization, a figure that’s projected to rise to one every 3 minutes by 2020.

“Neither the rich and powerful nor the poor can escape the fury of our killer roads,” Anumita Roychowdhury, an executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, said in a phone interview.

In 2012, the latest year for which data is available, 138,258 people died in road accidents in India, which had 159.5 million registered motor vehicles, according to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. That’s more than four times the 33,561 fatalities in the U.S., with about 100 million more registered vehicles than India.

It’s getting worse as more people buy cars. The number of light vehicles sold annually in India is projected to climb to 7 million in 2020 from 2.93 million in 2013, according to forecaster LMC Automotive.

‘General Lawlessness’

The programmer, Harsha Suryanarayana, was walking home from a supermarket in Bengaluru with his wife on June 15, when a car rammed into them, killing Suryanarayana on the spot. His wife, Neha, spent eight hours in intensive care.

The 32-year-old, who went by the online handle humblefool, was the top-ranked algorithm coder in the country, according to the programming website He ran a programming tutorial website called

His widow regained consciousness after five hours, said Yogesh Rao, Suryanarayana’s cousin. The driver of the vehicle that hit them hasn’t been found, he said.

“Things are getting progressively worse in this country,” said Rao, who also lives in Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore. “People don’t follow the rules, they frequently drive on the wrong side of the road, and there’s a general lawlessness.”

Optional Standards

Gopinath Munde, 64, was appointed the country’s rural development minister on May 26 in the wake of Modi’s election. On June 3, the minister’s sedan was hit by a hatchback in New Delhi and Munde, who was in the back seat and wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, suffered cardiac arrest after his injuries and blood loss, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said in a statement.

India’s infrastructure increases the risks. A majority of the country’s highways are two-lane roads and lack pedestrian bridges or tunnels and service roads for local traffic, according to Dinesh Mohan of the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. Highway design standards aren’t mandatory, and no one oversees compliance with them, he said.

A bill to establish a board similar to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which would recommend standards for highway and vehicle safety and conduct audits, lapsed after stalling in India’s parliament for four years. As a result, India has no professionals in government who look at road safety, said Mohan.

India’s Ministry of Road Transport & Highways is concerned about the rising number of fatalities on India’s roads and it will work with state governments to amend the Motor Vehicles Act, K. Syama Prasad, a spokesman for the ministry, said in an e-mail. The details of the bill, including punitive measures, are being worked out, he said.

No Test Required

B.K. Upadhayay, the joint commissioner of police for traffic in Mumbai, India’s most populous city, said the government needs to enforce heavy penalties for traffic violations. Getting a driver’s license also needs to be more difficult, he said.

Traffic fines in India are often fixed with a bribe, according to S.P. Singh, a senior fellow at the Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training in New Delhi.

On a recent visit to the Mumbai Central Road Transport Office, several men could be seen telling prospective customers they could get them a driver’s license for less than 2,200 rupees ($36), no test required. The test track, a required part of the license-obtaining process, was empty.

K.T. Golani, the officer in charge, said there is no corruption at the office and that the organization had taken steps to increase computerization to ensure everyone takes a test, as required by law.

Operation Eagle

At the Mumbai police, Upadhayay is trying to get people to observe traffic laws under a crackdown campaign called Operation Eagle. It’s focused on getting people to stop at pedestrian crossings, not jump traffic lights or drive on the wrong side of the road, and persuading motorcycle riders to wear helmets, which are required by law, he said.

Over a 15-day period, police caught 51,000 violators, Upadhayay said. Still, Mumbai needs a 42 percent increase in traffic officers to tackle the growing challenge, he said.

(Bloomberg Philanthropies provides funds to cut the number of road deaths and injuries in India through the Global Road Safety Programme. The organization was formed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.)

Road Rage

In the third incident last month, a driver in New Delhi hit and killed a policeman who was directing traffic. The man had allegedly refused to follow the officer’s directions and argued with him, Delhi Police said in a statement the next day. The 25-year-old policeman, identified as Constable Manaram, ended up on the hood of the car, which traveled 150 meters (492 feet) before he fell off, according to the statement. The driver and occupants of the car were arrested,

The road-death epidemic shows a “complete disregard for the law,” said Singh of the Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training.

“People do what they want on the road because they’re not afraid of getting caught, and even if they are caught, they can bribe their way out,” Singh said. “We need to both train people properly as well as instill a fear of law.”

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