CHENNAI: Cars, bikes and buses weave in and out of lanes at break-neck speeds and often collide and result in fatalities — that’s East Coast Road for you. But what’s even more dangerous is that certain stretches of the highway from Akkarai to Puducherry border have been closed for the four-lane project.
Tamil Nadu Road Development Company, which maintains ECR, told City Express that the floods have delayed road-widening work, which was to be completed by this month.
The agency is also in the process of putting in various safety measures such as a central median, signages, advance information boards about speed-breakers and turns and more. From Mahabalipuram to Puducherry border, 12 road improvements have been made at seven junctions, said a TNRDC official.
Partying is a way of life on this road, as are accidents, including head-on collisions, and fatalities. In 2014, there were 50 recorded fatalities, while in 2015, the number rose marginally to 53, according to TNRDC numbers.
“I once saw a bad accident on the way to Manamai village on ECR. A bike swerved suddenly and got by a car. The bike rider’s leg was almost severed,” recollects Shreyas Ravindran, a management consultant.
Shreyas, who occasionally parties on ECR, says that as of now, “you don’t know where the two lanes merge into one.” Parthiben Elango, a techie, agrees. “You never know where the road narrows and which lane you are in. It’s riskier at night because of the light from vehicles coming in the opposite direction,” he says. Parthiben, who is from Puducherry, works in Chennai and goes home often. “The ride will be safer if there is a divider throughout and all bends are straightened,” he adds.
Dangerous bends coupled with speed is a deadly combination, as Avinash Kannan, an analytics professional, learnt the hard way. “I was on the way to Puducherry from Chennai. Near Marakkanam, there was a sharp S-curve. I was going fast and didn’t realise how sharp the turning was. My vehicle slipped into the marsh off the road — but luckily I jumped off before it fell,” he narrates.
Curves like these are what TNRDC has been working on. The curve that Avinash failed to negotiate, for instance, has been improved. But will this curb accidents? “We need to wait and watch. Higher speed may just cause more accidents, especially with people crossing the road without spotting high-speed traffic coming,” says Parthiben.
But do all these factors keep people off the road? People like Shreyas say it doesn’t. “Some of my friends, who have beach houses on ECR, still tend to visit as usual. They slow down a bit, they drive more carefully. Depending on the place I’m going to, I take the OMR when I can,” he says. Besides, he points out, only a few stretches are this way — the stretch after Mahabalipuram is “really good”.
Others like Ashok KR aren’t really sure about road-widening. “Is ‘wider roads, more vehicles’ the way to go for India? We have the choice to invest heavily in public transport or go the USA way and give in to the auto lobby-politican nexus,” says the Director-Projects at an IT firm.
For shopkeepers, it has translated into a loss. “The work here has been on for about four months. But I had to keep the shop closed for two months because of floods and because there was no business,” rues Raju, a shopkeeper who has been hit because the portion of the road where his shop is located has been closed for widening work. “Besides, they have raised the height of the road. All the water now flows down into the shop,” he says.
Invest in Public Transport
Speaking about road-widening and the design of urban streets, Shreya Gadepalli from Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) says, “You cannot cure obesity with bigger pants. Road widening only creates more problems. Cities must invest in high quality public transport. Urban streets must be designed for people, especially those on foot, bicycles and buses, not just for cars.” Pointing out that ECR is known as a killer road, she says that the top 20 unsafe roads in the city are all under the Highways department. “Signal-free highways have no place within cities. Urban streets must have narrow traffic lanes and frequent intersections to improve safety,” she adds. Speaking about the relationship between the speed of collision and fatalities,
Gadepalli points out that, “60 (kmph) and above, you are dead for sure. 30 (kmph) and below, you are safe. Chennai has 30 times more road fatalities than Paris every year. We need to decide what we want — speed or life.” To make streets safe, she suggests three things — one, control speed through design, not just a speed limit sign; two, give pedestrians a safe crossing opportunity every 100-200 metres with a safe refuge in the median (to halt between two directions of traffic); and, finally, create a good accident response system. There were 391 recorded accidents on the road in 2014, while it was at 357 in 2015.