Mumbai: As two-wheelers become more popular in the absence of public transport, the number of road accidents involving these is also growing. More than a third (37%) of those killed in road accidents in 2019 were two-wheeler riders, noted a Ministry of Road Transport and Highways' report published in October this year.

More crashes and deaths are resulting from faulty licensing laws, no training, poor roads and unsafe helmets. Just correct helmet use could reduce the risk of fatal injuries by 42% and head injuries by 69%, a World Health Organization report said.

India needs stricter licensing laws and must ensure use of proper helmets through effective communication and fines, experts told IndiaSpend. Mandatory and proper training for riding and handling two-wheelers is a must, as is an overall improvement in road infrastructure. Also, India must bolster public transport in order to reduce traffic.

Bike sales grow with income

As the gross national income per capita rises, the number of two-wheelers also increases; the poorer the country, the higher the growth, according to The United Nations Motorcycle Helmet Study published in 2016. An exponential growth in a country's two-wheeler fleet might result in a rapid increase in the number of motorcycle crashes.

India witnessed a rapid growth in per capita incomes in the last decade, which also led to people buying more vehicles--particularly two-wheelers--according to a study by the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. India's per capita income grew by 28% between 2013 and 2017 while two-wheeler registrations increased by 46% (compared to 44% overall new vehicle registrations) over the same period. Last year, 21.2 million two-wheelers were sold in India and the annual sales are projected to reach 26.6 million units by 2025 at 2.6% growth rate, according to UnivDatos.

Alongside the increase in income and the subsequent rise in the number of vehicles, India also witnessed concrete or tarred surface road growth of 4.18% from 1951-2018. However, all this has not been accompanied by a corresponding improvement in regulation and regulatory infrastructure necessary to protect and educate vulnerable road users, pointed out experts.

There is barely any education on road safety in India, said Vir Nakai, 41, a Mumbai-based motorcyclist and brand strategist for bike manufacturers. "Safety is not high on our agenda... whether it is issuing driving licences or formulating and enforcing traffic rules," said Nakai, who has been riding motorcycles across the country for over two decades. "That is the main reason why we have to deal with hazards like parked vehicles on main roads, people riding and driving on the wrong side, little regard for traffic lights and complete lack of lane discipline. Motorcyclists are a small thing on the road and no one cares about them."

Together, two-wheelers and pedestrians account for 54% of accident related deaths in India and are the most vulnerable category in line with global trends, according to the ministry report. While 37% road accident deaths (56,136)--or six every hour, on average--involved two-wheelers, pedestrians made up 17% and cyclists 3%. There were 449,002 road accidents leading to 151,113 deaths, making Indian roads the deadliest in the world, the report noted. India accounts for 11% of the global road accident fatalities.

Mobility and motorcycles

Motorcycles and scooters, given their price-point and availability, are a convenient alternative to the inadequate public transport that exists outside of the big cities, said Nakai. The average commute time for surveyed two-wheeler riders in Pune was just about 30 minutes, while commuting by public transport typically took much longer, found a 2014 research by World Resources Institute.

"Scooters or two-wheelers are seen more as family vehicles in rural and semi-urban areas," said Bhargab Maitra, a professor of infrastructure design at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. "You will see that bike sales are higher in these areas but enforcement of traffic laws is a lot more lax."

"Most places of work are in cities while the workers tend to stay in the suburbs as housing prices within the city are too high for many to afford," said Tej Prakash Sinha, head of emergency medicine of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi. While cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata have metro and local train services and others such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai are developing their metro coverage, most of India does not have proper public transport services. Hence people are forced to travel long distances daily and bikes make the commute faster and easier, he added.

Poor licensing laws, little training

Vehicles driven by untrained and unqualified drivers are a serious traffic hazard. Road accidents involving drivers without a valid driving license increased from 37,585 in 2018 to 44,358 in 2019, an increase of 18%, and accounted for 9.9% of the total accidents, the transport ministry data showed.

"At least, car drivers do go through some level of training before they are issued a driving license in India. This is a missing factor for many two-wheeler riders," said Piyush Tewari, founder of SaveLIFE Foundation. "There is almost negligible training that people undergo in terms of crash prevention, road safety rules... they just learn how to operate the bike. So that is a major overall contributor to crashes."

The ministry data also revealed that about 72% of road accidents involved drivers holding a valid driver license. Of 317 victims of traumatic brain injury from road accidents studied for a 2018 AIIMS paper, only two-thirds were carrying a "formal driving license"; only one had a learner's license.

The driving license for two-wheelers is almost a joke, said Nakai. "I took a written test for my driving licence and then drove in a car for the road test. After finishing my drive, the person assessing me noticed I had applied for both two-wheelers and cars. When I said I would drop off the car and come back with a bike in a few minutes, he said, 'Since you can drive a car, you would know how to ride a motorcycle.' That was how it was," he recalled.

Given the kind of motorcycles available in the market now, such oversight in granting licences is dangerous. "Most riders in India do not have sufficient training to handle motorcycles like a KTM-390 (a powerful and very fast motorcycle) or other such bikes," added Nakai. "The skills needed to handle and ride these bigger bikes are very different from riding a basic motorcycle. One needs to undergo special training to be able to ride them safely. But, in India if you have a driving license, it is a blanket permit to ride anything from a scooty to a Hayabusa (superbike) and here everybody gets a two-wheeler license."

In contrast, Singapore has multi-tiered license categories and minimum age requirements corresponding to the power of the bikes. A Grade 1 license for 100cc bikes is issued at 18 years of age, and only after more training and at the age of 19 years one can apply for a Grade 2 for 150-200cc two-wheelers, and a Grade 3 license for superbikes is issued at the age of 20, said Tewari. "At the moment, a 19-year-old in India could get a learner's license and drive a superbike, which is almost like a weapon in the hands of untrained youngsters," he said.

Road infrastructure and vehicle design

Suchi Vora, 34, an architect in Pune, has been riding two-wheelers since she was 16 even though she started learning how to ride one when she was a 13-year-old like many of her peers did at the time in her hometown. The roads on which she started riding in the 1990s have come a long way and are much improved today, she said.

"The city's road and infrastructure have advanced tremendously from the time I first started riding but they have become more dangerous too," said Vora. "The city roads are a patchwork at best; they are uneven and riddled with potholes, which are practically deathtraps. There are more people speeding on our streets and the traffic has become a lot worse compared to the improvement in city roads. In the outskirts, the roads are still pretty bad. I do not feel safe taking my scooty to far away places… I use a car. There is always someone coming from the wrong side or jumping signals. You never know what could hit you if you switch off even for a minute."

"Two-wheelers are becoming more fuel efficient and hence their popularity is high in both rural and urban areas," said Maitra of IIT. "The road infrastructure is growing as well but it is not keeping pace with the growing number of vehicles and also the quality of the road infrastructure is not up to the mark."

On national highways, on average, driving on the wrong side of the road caused 5.2% and drunken driving led to 3.7% of the accidents, according to the government report.

"Our road infrastructure is not very forgiving, one violation could lead to an accident. This is especially true in case of two-wheeler drivers. Even though cars also violate rules, they are at least protected by the vehicle in some ways," added Maitra.

While road and infrastructure development has been sluggish, two-wheelers have evolved at a much faster pace and the current vehicles available in India are far more efficient, powerful and speedier than the scooters that the majority used to ride in the 1990s, experts and bikers told IndiaSpend. "While the scooters and bikes of the 1990s used to struggle to accelerate, motorcycles available in India today have become a lot faster," said Nakai. "Two-wheeler development has far outpaced infrastructure development in our country."

This is where road and vehicle design clash. The current speed limit in the country is 80 kmph on a four-lane highway. Even the entry-level 100cc motorcycles hit speeds of 80 kmph without much trouble. Overspeeding caused, on average, 71.6% of all road accidents on national highways, the Central report said. If the speed limit on our roads is reduced to about 55-57 kmph, we could save around 30%-37% lives, according to an advisor to the WHO, as IndiaSpend reported.

Helmets and trauma Injury

Almost everyone in India who has ridden a bike or scooter has done so without a helmet at least once in their lives, noted Nakai. "A huge number of bikers do not wear a helmet and among those who wear one, a lot of the helmets are of poor quality," he noted. "Again, this is because of our attitude towards safety. We do not take safety seriously." Not wearing helmets resulted in deaths of 44,666 (30,148 drivers and 14,518 pillions) or 29.82% of total road accident fatalities during 2019, according to the ministry data.

Correct helmet use can lead to a 42% reduction in the risk of fatal injuries and a 69% reduction in the risk of head injuries according to the WHO. "Oftentimes, we have seen that it [death] is because of either not wearing a helmet or wearing a very poor quality helmet," said Tewari. "Another challenge is implementing the helmet rule and availability of affordable and quality helmets right now."

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