A few days ago, I came across a tweet where someone complained to the police about a Mercedes driven over 150 kmph on a Mumbai road. This tweet took me back to 2016 to a horrific hit and run accident involving a Mercedes in Delhi, which still gives me nightmares (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjZzIS5f3BU&t=5s). By no means was this the first time a powerful vehicle had snuffed out a life in our cities. I started wondering if there were ways to reduce these accidents and the casualties.
Several accidents in our cities are unavoidable given the sheer number of vehicles plying our highly inadequate roads. I am sure there could be many interventions that could reduce the number of accidents and the extent of injuries sustained in these accidents.
According to statistics on the Save Life Foundation website, 17 people are killed every hour in road accidents in India and 29 children less than 14 years old are killed every day. These are terrible statistics and bring to fore the dangers on our roads. If one delves into reasons, then the “Global Status Report on Road Safety” published by the WHO identified the significant causes of traffic collisions as driving over the speed limit, driving under the influence, and not using helmets and seat belts.
Interventions to bring down these horrific numbers could include improving road designs, reducing overcrowding in our cities, stringent driving license tests, better safety mechanisms in cars and the like. I have one more to recommend.
What if the government insists that manufacturers fit speed limiters (also called governors) on their vehicles? The highest speed allowed on any road in India is 80 kmph (e.g. the Pune Expressway). On most city roads the speed limit is 60 kmph. The government could institute a policy whereby manufacturers could limit their vehicles’ speeds to three levels — 40 kmph, 60 kmph and 80 kmph.
We could have selective taxation on these cars based on the speed limits. Consumers who wish to have cars capable of the highest speed limit (perhaps for weekend trips or the love of speed) would need to pay a hefty premium called the speed tax (say, INR 1 lakh) on the vehicle. Those who wish to purchase a car capable of 60 kmph would get the car at the regular price. And those who want to buy the slowest car would get the vehicle at a discount (say, INR 50,000). So the people who wish to buy speedier cars and thus increase the danger to themselves and others on the road need to pay a premium and subsidise those who are willing to sacrifice their cars’ speeds. The speed tax can also be utilised for trauma centres and other measures to improve road safety.
There are other attendant benefits to this policy. First is concerning fuel consumption and pollution, both of which increase with the speed of the vehicles. The second benefit pertains to our public service vehicles. Police vehicles and ambulances can be exempt from these speed limiters. Police will always have cars which can attain higher speeds than regular cars. Goodbye to high-speed chases.
If the policy is adopted, implementing it on existing cars would be a challenge but not insurmountably so. A drive could be instituted for existing vehicles whereby within a year of the announcement of the policy these could be recalled and speed limiters fitted on them. This was done for etching car numbers on car window panes a few years ago. A similar graded taxation scheme could be also mooted for existing vehicles. This could be done using the Fastag system. While this could be a daunting exercise, this may end up saving countless lives and have the other benefits outlined above.
Most transportation systems use traffic speed as a measure of development. It is considered that higher the traffic speeds attained on the roads, better is the state of the transportation system, as a whole. In my opinion, this is erroneous since humans have a limited capability of handling high-speed vehicles. We should not be envisioning a future where individuals of questionable driving skills and physical capacities are driving metal monsters capable of death and destruction. The performance of driverless vehicles is showing us just how fallible we are as drivers.
The long term plan should be to increase public transport facilities and reduce commutes and the need for transportation. Creation of cities where no place is further than a 15-minute walk or cycle ride is in the realm of possibility today (e.g. Copenhagen). The recent WFH trend and ability to work from remote locations should also reduce the pressure on transportation.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent those of people, institutions or organisations that the author may be associated with in a professional or personal capacity.