Time to stop labeling thousands of fatal crashes on Indian roads as “accidents”. Across India, the National Criminal Records Bureau reported more than 400,000 cases of road “accidents” in 2021, resulting in 160,000 deaths – a 4% increase from 2017. Despite the human tragedy that each of these casualties left behind, society remained numb and unresponsive. The fact that road deaths are often labeled as “accidents” leads to public inaction against this preventable killer. It comes with their unavoidable connotations and acceptable travel expenses where “accidents just happen”. But they don’t “just happen”.
Fortunately, in December and September 2022, both Maharashtra Highway Police and Delhi Traffic Police proved that change is possible and moved away from this practice. The Delhi Traffic Police stated in their report that an “accident” is an “incidental event, or one that occurs without apparent or deliberate cause” and as such, they will no longer use the word “advance” when discussing road accidents.
This change reflects our commitment to treating car crashes as preventable rather than inevitable – thanks to evidence-based public health interventions such as road redesigns that consider all users, and work with law enforcement Combined mass media campaigns.
Evidence from places with excellent road safety records shows that road deaths can be prevented through strong government action. This includes a comprehensive approach to road safety, including prioritizing accessibility over mobility, and prioritizing walking, cycling and smart urban planning (such as public transport, crosswalks and cycle lanes) over high-speed driving and car dependence. In other words, low-cost, low-tech interventions are within the reach of every city and state, given the political will.
By defining road accidents as “accidents”, traffic accidents are perceived as less urgent and support key interventions that can prevent road accidents. Proper use of the term ‘crash’ is a commendable step for the Delhi Traffic Police and hopefully others – including government agencies, media outlets and the general public – will follow suit.
In fact, this shift has happened before. We’ve heard of “car accidents,” but when was the last time we heard of “airplane accidents”? The term “aircraft accident” is a misnomer in the aviation industry, but it wasn’t always the case. The term fell into disuse in the first half of the 20th century as governments put pressure on the industry to improve safety. Investigators are now working to determine the root cause of any plane crashes, or even near misses, and put in place stricter safeguards to ensure future incidents don’t happen. Precautions such as safe infrastructure, professional management with well-trained and skilled employees, maintenance of all equipment, and strict adherence to standard operating procedures all contribute to making air travel the safest mode of transportation per kilometer in the world.
We need to take a similar approach to road trips. For example, thoughtful urban planning and safe road design that encourages lower speeds can reduce crashes. Neighborhoods that are good for walking and cycling and less dependent on cars have fewer road deaths. These are low-cost and immediate interventions that save lives today.
Every road accident is preventable. Evidence-based interventions can radically reduce car crash deaths, and the language used to describe car crashes is critical to building public demand and political will for these changes.
Lakhtakia is a retired Indian Police officer and is currently Senior Road Safety Consultant for Vital Strategies India. Ennis is the Associate Director of Asia at Vital Strategies