A paediatrician practising in Delhi recalls one of his most disturbing cases being of a toddler whose mother was killed instantly in an accident while riding pillion on a motorised two wheeler (MTW). Her long scarf had got caught in the wheel. The baby in her arms had been thrown off and suffered multiple injuries including to the nervous system. This is by no means an isolated instance as can be deduced from the common sight of MTW’s with family members carrying toddlers and children on them.
India, with the dubious distinction of being the largest manufacturer of motorised two-wheelers in the world, needs its Government, corporate, media and civil society to think critically about its policies, and the lack of them, that is allowing this epidemic of vulnerable, helpless children being transported with impunity around in a vehicle, which is considered the most accident and fatality prone anywhere in the world.
Building killer roads
One of the fundamental weaknesses that has led to this situation is a lop-sided focus on developing road and transport infrastructure without commensurate planning going into transportation systems and mobility management. Today, India is a well paved country, second only to the USA in the length of its network.
However, the Central and State Governments have almost withdrawn from providing safe, efficient and reliable public transport networks and services on these roads, or sufficient financial and infrastructural support to non-motorised modes, like cycling and walking. This is even more glaring in smaller cities, towns and villages.
The National Rural Roads Development Agency (NRRDA) set-up in 2000 by the Ministry of Rural Development did a remarkable job in facilitating State and local Governments to build all weather roads for villages with a population more than 250 people.
At the cost of a whopping 33 billion USD, the agency laid 28,00,000 km of concrete roads, but it failed in simultaneously building institutional support for guiding and monitoring movement along those roads. With the result that rural roads have steadily gone on to suffer higher accidents rates than urban areas!
According to a report generated by the transport research wing of the Highway Ministry, rural roads, accounted for 46.6 percent of road accidents and 36.8 percent of fatalities in 2014. The report adds that the number of accidents increased from 486,476 in 2013 to 489,400 in 2014. Fatalities also rose from 137,572 in 2013 to 1,39,671 in 2014.
Private gain public pain
The reason is that the asymmetrical development between road building and transportation services has been filled in by unregulated private players – at the highest and lowest ends. The latter include ‘jugaadu’ service providers plying three-wheelers, Vikrams, jeeps and low quality mini and maxi buses. Since these are unreliable, uncomfortable and of poor quality there is a great demand for private vehicles, which in a poor country like India means first and foremost MTW’s – a formidable industry segment of the country.
The convenience of an MTW cannot be questioned. It is nimble and manoeuvrable, fuel efficient and it efficiently provides first and last mile connectivity. Therefore, it is no wonder that the sales of MTW’s in urban and rural India have been nothing less than explosive over the past decades.
The industry has been growing steadily between 8-12 percent a year mostly due to a consistent growth in economic activity, low excise duties and interest rates. In fact, the outreach programmes the MTW industry has undertaken in rural areas – loan melas, exchange camps, contact programmes – are all something that the Central and State Governments can learn from for promoting their own products and services!
Hero Honda , whose total sales value from the rural segment is over 40 percent, had a catchy slogan - “Har Gaon Har Angan”, (Every Village Every Household) – for its initiative to reach out to the rural sector backed by a Service Har Jagah (SHJ) platform. Yamaha too promoted its products through its Yamaha Bike corners that offered flexible EMI’s depending on the specific rural market it was catering to.
From the website of SIAM (Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers)
The MTW manufacturing industry has smoothly filled the gaping gap left by the Government to push for more and more sales of their products. Unfortunately, this demand pull is being catered to without stringent laws to ban pillion riding of children, old and sick people, or rigorous licensing systems.
The worst victims of such casual, careless, irresponsible penetration of MTW’s are children, both on the vehicle and on the road. As a study done in Pune shows that the highest number of road accidents involve MTW’s.
Pedestrians, another highly vulnerable group also have a high proportion of children among them, especially from poor homes. This is because children’s anticipation and reflexes on the road tend to be slower and more confused and the trauma too they suffer is more intense.
MTW safety – bigger than helmets
Helmets, which are synonymous with MTW safety suffer from two fundamental problems, especially when applied to children. Firstly, there are no helmets for toddlers and children, and even if there were, they offer an insufficient protection because the total body is exposed while sitting or being carried on an MTW. Studies show that helmets can prevent 60-80 percent injury or fatality due to impact on the head, but they can by no means eliminate them.
This is a significant statistic and needs to be considered when planning MTW safety. Jakkam Surender in his paper ‘Pattern of Injuries in Fatal Road Traffic Accidents in Warangal Area’ whose objective was to analyse the pattern of injuries in two wheeler road traffic accidents studied 297 victims, who died due to two wheeler accidents and were autopsied at Kakatiya Medical College, Warangal, during the period of January 2009 to June 2011. It shows that while helmets can reduce fatality and injury, deaths can be caused due to other bodily damage and wounds.
Another challenge that needs to be considered for helmets in many parts of India is the climate. In hot and humid parts of India, helmets, like those developed in most developed countries, tend to be uncomfortable and heat trapping contributing to irritation and discomfort for the rider.
Boosting public and rural transport systems
The need of the hour is for the Government to prioritise public and mass transit systems on a war footing and control the use of private modes of transport.
In a working paper developed in March 2014 by Embarq India, part of WRI (World Resource India) India, titled Motorised Two-wheelers in Indian Cities, A Case Study of the City of Pune, they found that 80 percent of their respondents who owned MTW’s said they would prefer to use public transport if it was made safe, efficient and reliable.
It seems clear that MTW users use their vehicles as family modes not because they are safe but because they are safer than walking, cycling and using public transportation systems.
The study also notes the apparent co-relation between the motorised mode shares of public transport and two-wheelers. Large metros like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai with higher public transport shares have low two wheeler shares, while the converse is true in the case of small to mid-sized cities like Ahmedabad and Pune, which have the highest two-wheelers shares in the country.
In addition, this planning must extend beyond urban areas to rural areas too. In February 2010, the Government of India had set up a High Level National Transport Development Policy Committee (NTDPC), “the main objective of it was to develop a long term national transport policy (with a twenty year horizon) which facilitates overall growth and efficiency in the economy, while minimising energy use and effects on climate change.”
The Committee held 21 meetings over the period of almost 4 years of its existence, and enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the South African Government during their visit there between 19-28 March in 2012.
The team “benefited from the deliberations and interaction with the Deputy Minister of Transport as well as from their field visits”. Except that in its own paper that it prepared, it did not include a specific vision for rural transport which South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria have as part of their own governments’ policy vision.
China, compared to India for its size, problems of socio-economic disparity and corruption, nevertheless often subverts uncomfortable policies in less ‘jugadu’ and more technological advanced ways. This is well demonstrated in China’s searing leadership as the electric MTW manufacturer and user in the world.
In an effort to ‘clean’ its city centres, many Chinese cities, at the beginning of the century, heavily regulated the entry of MTW’s by either banning them outright or withholding the issuance of MTW licences.
This first spurred China’s electric two-wheeler growth which came to be categorised as ‘bicycles’. These electric two-wheelers maintained bicycle-style design with functioning pedals, they weighed less than 40 kilogram and maintained speeds less than 20 kilometres an hour. This also allowed them to travel in bicycle paths and riders did not require licence and registration.
This electrification was extended to motorcycles as well, and as extensive studies done by Prof. Christopher Cherry, Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Tennessee Knoxville, show within just ten years electric bike sales that began modestly in the 1990s, started to take off in 2004, when 40,000 were sold.
Since then, over 100 million have been sold and now more than 20 million are sold each year. Electric two wheelers, in short, represent the first mass-produced and mass-adopted alternative-fuel vehicles in the history of motorisation. In 2008 alone, Chinese bought 21 million electric bikes in comparison with 9.4 million autos the same year.
TechNavio that publishes market research reports forecasts that the electric two-wheelers market in China will grow at a CAGR of 8.26 percent over the period 2014-2019.
On the other hand, electric bicycles and motorcycles have not been enthusiastically adopted by Indian manufacturers at all.
Till a year ago, Taiwan had 14 million MTW ownership, double the number of cars, in a country of 17 million. According to Dr. Wayne Gao, a strategic consultant for enterprises specializing in green technologies including transportation, this means that among 8.2 million households in Taiwan, there are an astonishing two MTW’s plus one car per household in Taiwan at an average.
This figure in itself is vastly different to the Indian scenario, which is a low motorised country and MTW’s are not usually a second or alternative vehicle but a transit mode between using public transport and buying a car, which is seen as the next step.
This also means that in Taiwan it is mostly young and healthy people who use the MTW to zip around with the car being available for old and infirm people as well as for children.
Therefore, unless we want to become a high motorised as well as a doubly high MTW country, there is little point in following Taiwan’s road traffic design.
On the other hand we need to compare ourselves less with China and Taiwan who have very different trajectories and contexts to their MTW growth to ours.What we need to do is put our people – especially the safe transportation of women and children - at the heart of our transportation policies. To make sure that accidents are genuinely mistakes to be addressed, not an inevitable part of a profoundly faulty mobility system that is doomed to kill and maim its most vulnerable.