Reuters

The program will require 51 hospitals to accept injured patients without questions or money up front.

India’s roads have become so dangerous, and emergency medical treatment so inadequate, that the government is rolling out a pilot program to provide free treatment for crash victims on a particularly busy – and deadly – stretch of highway.

The one-year plan will be implemented over the next few months on the 140-mile road between the booming Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, where many international companies have their headquarters, and the ancient city of Jaipur. Just one 25-mile portion of this route was the scene of 260 traffic fatalities in 2011.

The central government is contributing approximately $3.7 million to the effort, which will pay outright for the treatment of injured people in the first 48 hours after a crash, with a $550 limit on payments. The program will require the 51 hospitals along the route to accept patients without questions or money up front.

Volunteers trained in first aid and trauma response will be dispatched to crash scenes, and victims will be transported to the hospital in GPS-equipped ambulances that will transmit data back to a central control room. Additional data collected by the volunteers will be analyzed with the help of a team from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, then used to help improve road safety.

The insurance giant ICICI Lombard is partnering with the government in the initiative, ponying up $55,000 as part of its "corporate social responsibility" program. It's a move in the insurer's self-interest, as well, as an executive quoted in The Telegraph of Calcutta made clear:

“The third party liability insurance, which is compulsory for all vehicle owners to take, is a bleeding sector. Every year, we lose a lot of money paying compensation to vehicle owners and accident victims. By saving lives we will also be able to save our own financial liability,” said Birendra Mohanty, vice-president, ICICI Lombard.

Traffic deaths are epidemic in India and elsewhere in the developing world. According to a report just released by the World Health Organization, about 1.24 million people die each year on the world's roads, and another 20 to 50 million people annually sustain non-fatal but sometimes crippling injuries. Some 91 percent of the deaths happen in "low-income and middle-income countries" – which only account for half the world’s vehicles. Without significant changes in risk-reduction strategies, WHO estimates that traffic fatalities could reach 1.9 million by 2020.

In India alone, there are approximately 500,000 road crashes every year, and 140,000 people die as a result.

The number of Indians killed in traffic has increased four-fold since 1970 [PDF]. As many as half of the people killed or injured are "vulnerable users," defined as pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. On the Gurgaon-Jaipur road, as elsewhere, many deaths result from the lack of accommodation for pedestrians along corridors that are seeing exponential growth in residences and businesses.

The Indian pilot program is aimed at getting victims help in what is known as the "golden hour," the precious time immediately after injury when doctors can make meaningful interventions and possibly save lives. As things stand now, that golden hour is often squandered. According to WHO, less than 50 percent of gravely injured people in India are rushed to hospitals in ambulances, compared with 70 percent in China and 75 percent in Brazil.

The announcement of the pilot program comes just days before a scheduled Google+ Hangout forum on the topic of highway safety, in which C.P. Joshi, India’s minister of road transport and highways, is scheduled to answer citizen questions.

The road ministry, in an official news release, said that the program could eventually be expanded to cover the whole country: "The idea is that no one may be deprived of immediate treatment for want of money."

Top image: Vehicles move during busy traffic hours in Mumbai. Traffic accidents in India are set to rise as rising incomes and a booming economy mean more cars and trucks on the roads. (Punit Paranjpe/Reuters)

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