How Poor Designs Are Making Our Highways Unsafe
Over 60 per cent of India’s road accident-related fatalities occurred on its National and State Highways in 2015, according to data released by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. While overspeeding and drink driving are often listed as the reason for these accidents, poor road design and improper maintenance of this infrastructure are also major contributors to the low safety standards on our highways.
“The way highways are planned is quite haphazard and safety often takes a back seat. A good highway should facilitate high mobility, segregate slow moving traffic from fast moving traffic and not merge with urban roads. However, this often does not happen,” says Dr Sewa Ram, Professor of Transport Planning, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.
Currently, the only exhaustive set of norms on the planning and design of highways is the ‘Manual of Specifications and Standards’. This was developed and published by the Indian Roads Congress for two-lane highways in 2007, four-lane highways in 2009 and six-lane highways in 2010. However, the application of these is not uniform.
The problem comes down to the fact that there is no proper mechanism for road safety audits, which means that there is no real and independent effort to ensure that the designs and construction of highways make these as safe as possible.
A look at the Yamuna Expressway which connects Greater Noida to Agra reveals that a large number of accidents occur on it. According to Kanika Kalra who is an urban transport expert with the Institute of Urban Transport, one reason for this is the concrete surface which increase the likelihood of tyre bursts.
“Of course, in the winter fog is a big factor but in the summer the Yamuna Expressway reports a lot of instances of accidents occurring due to the tyres of vehicles bursting. These tyres overheat because of the friction with the concrete road surface,” she explains.
This flaw is something that could have been picked up if there had been preliminary safety audits during the developmental stage. The Yamuna Expressway had its first safety audit in 2015 which was conducted by officials from the Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority themselves.
Another major oversight while designing highways is that the lanes are often not created with the aim of ensuring an adequate distance between two vehicles. These lanes can sometimes be narrower than they should be, reducing the gap between motorists. Vehicles running at high speeds need a good amount of distance to stop, as well as some room to slide to the side, without slipping into the parallel lane. Not accounting for this in the design stage can set up situations with higher chances of collision.
Apart from this, Dr. Ram believes that some of the biggest problems in terms of design arise from the fact that many highways are not planned to maintain access control. This means that traffic coming from other areas often merge with the high-speed traffic running on highways, increasing the probability of collision. Additionally, service lanes are often not available, creating conditions that compel local traffic from the surrounding areas to use the highway as well. This creates an uneasy mix of vehicles running at different speeds, making it unsafe for anyone using the highway.
Additionally, highways often run right through villages with the planning process failing to factor in the requirements of the villagers or provide them with alternative routes to commute, other than through these highways. This completely discards the possibility of access control, as the residents are forced to use these highways to reach their homes, fields and other nearby points.
Also Read: Road Design: What India’s Urban Centres Can Do To Improve Road Safety
Ensuring that access control on highways is prioritised is something that has been reiterated several times by the Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, as a commitment to improving road safety. Last year, the ministry had identified 700 black spots (areas that consistently report large number of accidents) and had stated that ₹11,000 crore would be spent over five years to fix these.