India’s roads are among the most unsafe in the world, so how do we change that?

Ashraf Engineer

June 15, 2024


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

India’s roads are the most dangerous in the world. In 2022, more than 4.6 lakh accidents were reported in which 1.68 lakh people lost their lives and nearly 4 lakh were injured. Nitin Gadkari, as minister for road transport and highways in the previous government, expressed concern in the Rajya Sabha about road accidents. India clocks a staggering 53 accidents per hour, leading to 19 deaths. Between 2005 and 2022, the number of deaths on our roads shot up form 94,968 to 168,491. Of every one lakh people who die in India, 9.5 perish in road accidents.


Across the world, road crashes claim 13.5 lakh lives each year, 93% of them in low- and middle-income countries like India.

With the world’s largest population and a fast-growing automobile market, India is waging a constant battle against road accidents. Gadkari attributed the rise to poor engineering and unsatisfactory detailed project reports. The lack of fear of legal repercussions only makes rash drivers bolder.

National and state highways account for only 5% of India’s road network, but 56% of all accidents. Of these, 32.9% are on national highways and 23.1% on state highways. The main reason seems to be the higher speeds, along with increasing traffic.

There is, in fact, a complex interplay of factors, from poor infrastructure to lack of enforcement of traffic laws and inadequate awareness about safe driving practices.

India has now set itself a target to halve the number of road accidents by 2030. The approach focuses on stricter enforcement, better infrastructure, advanced car safety features, a better emergency response system and public awareness campaigns. Authorities are also aiming to publish real-time traffic monitoring data within 15 days and to implement safety measures accordingly.

On the legal front, the Motor Vehicle Amendment Act of 2019 was the first major change in the law since 1988. Earlier, the law pre-dated liberalisation. The roads created after that and the vehicles using them have all changed, and the law had not kept pace. For example, it lacked provisions that enable children to commute safely.

The amended law mandates scientific investigation of crashes to allow police and other authorities to understand what went wrong. It also facilitates the deployment of new technologies for enforcement and behavioural changes. Illustrative of the need for behavioural change is a Ministry of Road Transport report that says speeding is the main cause of accidents, accounting for 72.3% of them.

For the injured, the amended law enables schemes for immediate medical care. This is important because not everybody has insurance or the ability to afford trauma care.

Also, the legal and educational shift must be accompanied by a cultural one. The emphasis, therefore, is on ‘4 Es’: education, enforcement, engineering and environment (including emergency care).

India needs a wider approach that not only educates drivers and has adequate laws in place but also safer road infrastructure and improved emergency response systems. The education aspect involves campaigns for a better understanding of traffic rules and road signs, and appropriate behaviour.

Technology can be a gamechanger. So, we are seeing a rise in the use of Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems that can prevent driver error. Smart traffic management systems and real-time analytics can help authorities manage traffic flow and identify potential hazards quickly. Emerging technologies, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication and autonomous driving systems, also hold promise. More stringent driving tests that are standardised across India should be mandatory too.

The ministry report dispels some myths. Driving drunk accounts for only 2.2% of accidents and the use of mobile phones 1.6%. Drivers without a licence or with a learner’s licence were involved in 11.8% of accidents. More than half weren’t wearing seatbelts and 71% of riders killed on two-wheelers didn’t have a helmet on.

Interestingly, 67% of these accidents occurred on straight roads and 74.2% in clear weather. Older vehicles weren’t a significant cause either. Vehicles under 10 years old accounted for 58.8% of the deaths.

The report also features what has worked well in different parts of the country. Kerala, for instance, is a success story. It achieved zero deaths in the network of roads, including narrow hill stretches, leading to the Sabarimala temple for two consecutive years.

This road network is 371-km-long and carries an estimated 40 million pilgrims in 8 million vehicles every pilgrimage season from November to January. The winding roads cut through forests and urban centres. Often, they are narrow and experience bottlenecks due to crashes or breakdowns.

In 2009-10, Kerala started the Sabarimala Safe Zone project – a combination of engineering and enforcement. Before the intervention, the network reported around 230 crashes, resulting in four to six deaths and injuries to more than 200 every season. Between 6,000 and 7,000 vehicles would suffer breakdowns.

After the project’s implementation, from 16 deaths in 47 accidents in the zone in 2009-10, the numbers have been falling. In 2013-14, there were zero deaths despite 20 accidents. The following year saw 14 road crashes and four deaths. In 2019-20 and 2020-21, again the number of deaths was zero, although these were largely the pandemic years.

The interventions included signboards, blinker lights and mirrors to assist users in identifying road geometry. There were 24×7 control rooms and 24 patrolling squads round-the-clock at three accident-prone sites. Emergency medical response teams were on the ready too.

Kerala also partnered with 35 automobile companies to set up 300 mechanical staff in 90 teams, three mobile repair units with sufficient spares, five cranes and 50 recovery vans. Arrangements for supplying fuel to stranded vehicles were also made on a payment basis. Road safety messages were displayed in Malayalam, English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu at checkposts, toll booths and transit points.

There are other success stories, such as the Zero Fatality Corridor on NH48 or the old Mumbai-Pune highway, which saw a 61% fall in deaths between 2018 and 2021, as well as the Safe Corridor Demonstration Project in Karnataka on State Highway 20 that saw a 54% reduction in deaths between 2015 and 2018.

In Kolkata, road deaths have reduced by 58% since 2016 after the police analysed accident data with the help of a professional research firm and rectified road engineering defects, enforced campaigns like ‘no helmet, no petrol’ and machines to detect speeding and red light violations even at night.

Across the country, often, it’s disjointed efforts by government agencies and a lack of resources that create problems. A collaborative approach would lead to a more comprehensive strategy.

One such collaboration is between Rail India Technical and Economic Service, better known as RITES, and the National Highway Authority of India or NHAI. RITES acts as a consultant to conduct road safety audits for NHAI. RITES also collaborated with the Uttar Pradesh Expressways Industrial Development Authority to conduct similar audits for the 312-km stretch of the Greenfield Ganga Expressway along Hardoi, Unnao and Prayagraj districts.

Urgent work is needed to make our roads safer because the impact of accidents is felt well beyond the tragedy itself. It is estimated that they result in an economic loss equivalent to 3.18% of the GDP. That’s roughly Rs 8.17 lakh crore in 2022-23 alone. They strain the healthcare system and the workforce suffers from lost productivity. There are immense financial burdens also in the form of vehicle repairs and infrastructure damage. Road safety is not just about saving lives but also protecting families, better healthcare and boosting the economy.

It must be remembered, however, that the responsibility doesn’t rest solely with the government. It’s one that we as citizens must bear too. Be more alert, don’t speed, follow traffic rules and care for fellow road users. Your life could depend on it.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.