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The lows and high ways

Until 1965 when American consumer activist Ralph Nader published his exposé, Unsafe at any speed, automobile accidents were invariably blamed on the driver. Nader pointed out certain engineering and design faults in cars that could contribute to or result in mishaps. In the years that followed, the automobile industry, in conjunction with government agencies and consumer groups, ensured that the drivers’ and passengers’ safety was paramount when designing vehicles. Aside from seat belts and airbags, the cars were made so that the impact of a head-on collision was absorbed by the front of the vehicle while the cabin in which the occupants sat remained either intact or minimally damaged.

Thus the photographs of the Mercedes Benz GLC in which Cyrus Mistry and three members of the Pandole family were traveling from Udvada to Bombay on September 4, 2022 showed the cabin almost intact despite the car crashing at less than 90 km an hour (as per media reports citing findings of the Mercedes investigating team) into the low parapet wall of the bridge where the highway narrows from three to two lanes (see "An accidental pilgrimage," pg 36).

Initial reports blamed the driver, gynecologist Dr Anahita Pandole, for speeding and overtaking from the left. But driving at around 100 km [60 m per hour (mph)] on a national highway such as the one that connects Ahmedabad in Gujarat to Bombay in Maharashtra is not excessive. The maximum permissible speed on interstate highways in India is 120 km/h and there is talk of increasing it to 140. In Europe the recommended speed limit is 130 km/h (80 mph) with each country setting its own limit. Germany, for example, has no speed restrictions on its autobahns. But the difference between driving in the developed world and a developing country like India is the design, construction and maintenance of the highways, the capability of the driver and the road worthiness of the vehicle.

A report on the blog/website First Post quotes a spokesman for the All India Vahan Chalak Mahasangh (vehicle drivers’ federation) stating, "The width of the southbound lane on Charoti flyover is 10.5 m (which) has been narrowed down to seven meters over the Surya River. What kind of road engineering is this?…The highway authority has not put any warning sign." With trucks hogging the fast lanes, motorists have no option but to overtake from the left.

Experienced motorcycle enthusiast Naozer Aga died in an accident on the Bombay-Poona highway/expressway (another death trap) on February 19, 2018. The 76-year-old accomplished rider who wore all the required gear and was familiar with the road died because of a newly constructed unmarked, speed breaker. No signage cautioned the driver of its existence nor was the newly raised portion of the highway painted with stripes of white, according to media reports. The businessman’s helmet and protective clothing was no match for the intensity of the impact with which he struck the median. Similarly, decades ago several Parsi youngsters from Bombay lost their lives when their vehicle crashed into a truck loaded with protruding steel rods parked on the road/highway without any warning lights. They were reportedly driving to or from Taloja for a biryani dinner.

As there are no barriers to prevent stray cattle or human beings from trespassing on the highway, drivers also have to be alert for any wayward animal suddenly charging across the motorway.

Pandole was a seasoned driver, noted Hormazd Sorabjee, the editor of Autocar India in an interview with the television channel, News Today. They had driven before to Mahabaleshwar so he was familiar with her driving ability. He noted accidents can happen when a driver swerves to avoid a pothole or when some truck driver swerves from one lane to another and forces a car to a side. He termed the condition of the highways in the state as "pathetic." Had the two occupants in the rear seat of Pandole’s vehicle worn seat belts, all four occupants could possibly have walked out of the car unscathed, he speculated. Anahita’s husband Darius who sat in the front was saved from death and so was she because they wore seat belts and their air bags inflated. Mistry and Jehangir Pandole lost their lives.

Over 30 years ago, the late Dr Aspi Golwalla, a former chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, at a public function bemoaned the number of Parsi deaths on the then dual carriageway between Bombay and Udvada. Most of the cars at that time were Ambassadors and Fiats. Few, if any, had seat belts. Car ownership in those days was a luxury, the waiting list for allotment was years; design and engineering improvements were a low priority. At one time the road between the highway and Udvada village was a dirt road. Congress minister of tourism for Maharashtra Homi Taleyarkhan had it tarred.

India, with two percent of the world’s vehicles, accounts for 11% of road traffic fatalities. An article in The Times of India of September 6 noted, "more than one person died every hour on the streets of Maharashtra in road related crashes in 2021."

Aside from the roads, the issuance of driving licenses also needs attention. One has heard of students from driving schools being issued licenses without even stepping off the vehicles ferrying them to the Regional Transport Office. Overburdened with the number of license applications, the driving tests are either compromised or not even taken. Many drive without a license. Registration papers may not be available in a vehicle or valid insurance policies. At a Bombay crossroad you may witness a helmet-less driver on a two wheeler blithely speaking on a mobile phone, breaking a traffic signal and entering a no-entry street. Pavements are encroached upon or dug up. Pedestrians, several chatting on mobile phones, cross when and where they please.

There is a tendency to blame every road accident on the driver just as plane crashes of yore were invariably blamed on "pilot error." Similarly fires in homes and offices were attributed to "short circuits." Few searched for structural defects, faulty equipment or poor maintenance. Will it be different this time? The high profile individuals involved in the crash may force a relook. The news media has been analyzing the causes instead of just mouthing the official line (speeding, overtaking from the wrong side, etc). But they will soon move on to other subjects. It’s only if concerned citizenry exerts pressure that things will change.

Anahita was an activist protesting against hoardings that marred the cityscape and the cutting, poisoning and trimming of trees to ensure the visibility of the billboards’ contents. Such civic minded individuals help to ensure compliance of laws. On May 3, 1980 American Candice Lightner’s 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver; four months later she started a non-profit organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She "turned her grief into action and sparked a nationwide movement of brave, resilient women," notes the MADD website.

Till conditions improve, the best advice one can offer is drive slowly, wear a seat belt, or better still, take the train.

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The sadness of the incident remains with us. Please update us on Dr Pandole and her husband's condition.
- Sunnu Golwalla
- 26-Sep-2022


Villoo Poonawalla