Modernizing India's highways hasn't cut down on fatalities. But a Mumbai engineering firm thinks things like curves and signs could make all the difference.

The sleek road connecting the Indian cities of Mumbai and Pune is a model of modernity. Opened in 2002, it was the country’s first access-controlled highway, a signature accomplishment for a nation that has built thousands of kilometers of new roadways in the last few years.

But there's a problem with the six-lane Mumbai-Pune Expressway. While it's much safer than the aging, dilapidated highway it replaced, it is still a very dangerous road to travel - the scene of 2,000 crashes over its 12-year history, resulting in 500 fatalities and thousands of injuries. According to an article in the online publication, other new roads have similarly alarming fatality rates, the vast majority of them due to human error such as speeding.

Indeed, although India has been modernizing its roads, it has not been creating safer environments for those who use them. India accounts for about 10 percent of the road fatalities in the world at this point, and the incidence of death increased by more than 44 percent between 2001 and 2011. In 2011, nearly 137,000 people died on Indian roads, and the rate still keeps going up, despite the ongoing construction of more modern roadways.

A Mumbai-based behavioral science and design firm called Final Mile is studying the problem and trying to come up with effective design solutions to address some of the reasons behind India's traffic death crisis. Ram Prasad, one of the company's cofounders, says roads like the Mumbai-Pune Expressway have been designed with only cars in mind, and fail to take the human factor fully into account. They are so straight and wide and clear that they encourage excessive speed, inattention, and carelessness. In other words, they lull drivers into perilous complacency precisely because they seem so safe and predictable.

Traditionally, Indian roadways have been chaotic and full of surprises, a jumble of what Prasad calls "vehicular complexity" that includes everything from bullock carts to motorcycles to large trucks, all vying furiously for space. “For a long period of time in India, drivers were used to a lot of activity on the roads," says Prasad. "I used to say they were very entertaining."

Many Indian roads still fit this description, and even on the more modern thoroughfares, unpredictable risks remain. Patterns of settlement tend to follow the new roads – so-called ribbon development -- and people without cars who live alongside the freeways inevitably try to cross, because for them there is no alternative.

Mahouts ride their elephants as they cross a flyover in New Delhi. (Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters)

For all users, says Prasad, the problem of risk perception has only heightened by better, faster cars and straighter, faster roads. "Why do roads that feel safer have more accidents?" he asks. "People do not pay attention to signage. Speeds increase." And when pedestrians encounter these vehicles, they underestimate how fast they are traveling.

There are many factors behind the staggering fatality rates on Indian roads. Enforcement is often inadequate or nonexistent. Getting a driver’s license is too easy, and many people behind the wheel are less than competent. Medical care often does not arrive on the scene in time.

These are questions that cannot be addressed by design. But Prasad believes that as new roads are built, design expertise can make a positive difference. His firm has shown that design can improve public safety, in a pro bono experimental project that aimed to bring down the number of people killed while crossing railroad tracks in the Wadala Station in Mumbai. (An average of 10 people die each day crossing tracks in the densely populated city.)

Risk perception was the key in that case. Final Mile painted alternate ties of the railroad tracks yellow, enabling people to better gauge the speed of approaching trains. In another tactic, they installed signs showing shocking images of a man’s face as a train bore down on him. The message was understandable in a second, no matter which of India’s 25 languages you speak, and the number of deaths in Wadala Station dropped dramatically.

In his work studying the problem of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, Prasad says, he and his colleagues hope to devise similar lifesaving tactics. One idea is to engineer curves into roads that have been built too straight, in an attempt to break up the monotony of driving. Another is to create signage that is visual rather than text-based in order to make it more understandable to the multilingual population.

Prasad says he also wants to aim safety messages at passengers, rather than drivers. Drivers tend to shrug off ad campaigns that warn of the dangers of reckless driving, says Prasad, because of the so-called superiority bias that leads people to assume they are more skilled than others at a given task. Since many middle- and upper-class people in India employ drivers rather than piloting their own cars, Prasad thinks that encouraging passengers to see potential risks in driver behavior could be effective.

"The design behind safety is not something people are aware of," Prasad says. "There should be a sense of vulnerability, or people take undue risk." In so doing, they can make even the smoothest road potentially deadly.

Top image: A police crane prepares to lift the wreckage of a damaged bus. At least 28 people were killed and 10 others injured after the two passenger buses in which they were travelling were hit by a truck on a highway. (Reuters)

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