Highway to Hell

Death rides the 165-km Delhi-Agra Yamuna Expressway where traffic rules are flouted and enforcement is poor, making it India’s most lethal highway 

Published: 21st July 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st July 2019 11:28 AM   |  A+A-

Is it a short route between Delhi and Agra or the shortest route from life to death?” asks Rishi Yadav, who survived one of the deadliest road accidents on Yamuna Expressway early this month. The swanky 165-km long expressway developed under public-private partnership at a cost of `12,839 crore to drastically reduce the travel time between Delhi and Agra has been rechristened the ‘highway of death’ after a shocking series of fatal accidents.

Authorities have recorded 5,749 crashes on the road since its inauguration in August 2012, which makes it one of the most dangerous roads of India considering its far shorter length compared to several main National Highways. On July 8, 29 people were killed and 18 injured, including Yadav, after a double-decker bus of the Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation toppled into a 40-foot deep drain near Etmadpur. The driver had reportedly dozed off at the wheel and the speeding bus—the last one to Delhi from Lucknow’s Alambagh depot—crashed into a divider before turning into a weapon of mass self-destruction. Most of the passengers, too, were sleeping when death struck. 

Exactly 21 days ago, on June 16, eight members of a family on their way to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal were killed when their car rammed into a truck on the expressway in Mathura district. Five members of the family from Jewar in Gautam Buddh Nagar district died on the spot and three others succumbed to injuries. This year alone such frequent crashes have claimed 127 lives. 

Why has the seven-year-old state-of-the-art expressway become a symbol of fatalities in the fast lane? Now managed by the Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority (YEIDA), it took over 12 years to build since the proposal was mooted in 2001. The authorities and experts, however, blame the accidents on overspeeding, sleepy drivers, poor visibility in winter and overheated tyres bursting. 

KILLER LENGTHS
Originally planned as a fast-moving corridor between Noida and Agra, the expressway was subsequently extended up to Lucknow. The idea was to connect the main townships and commercial centres on the eastern side of the Yamuna river that would spur avenues for industrial and urban development—and, most importantly, to relieve the load of the overcrowded National Highway 19 (old NH 2).  

The road, developed by the Jaypee Group, appeared as a blessing for domestic and foreign tourists visiting Agra. Previously, the drive was 210 km long on NH 2 and took nine to 10 hours to return to Delhi. The expressway—designed for a speed of 120 km per hour (kmph)—reduced travel time by almost half. 

The speed limits for cars and heavy vehicles are 100 kmph and 60 kmph respectively. Between 2012 and 2017, 2,30,46,542 overspeeding vehicles were recorded on camera at the three toll plazas. Of these, Jewar saw the maximum number at 1,07,00,438, while Mathura and Agra registered 70,13,532 and 53,32,572 vehicles respectively.

Till Agra, the road length is 165.537 km, with six lanes extendable to eight. The width of the service road is seven metres for 14 km and 5.50 metres for 32 km. Its rigid pavement is made of concrete and has a six-metre-wide median. There are 41 minor bridges and 70 underpasses along the way. YEIDA was constituted on April 24, 2001, and the UP government notified 334 villages of Gautam Buddh Nagar, Bulandshahar, Aligarh, Mahamaya Nagar (Hatras), Mathura and Agra districts. The road has spurred economic growth both in the UP region and in adjoining states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. However, YEIDA is currently headless after its Chief Operation Officer Arunvir Singh superannuated last month.

About two-three years into the road’s operation, the bloodstains on the smooth asphalt could not be ignored any longer. The corridor is severely criticised for its poor safety parameters, considering the high number of accidents and deaths.According to authorities, there has been an average two accidents per day or about 782 per year (see: Crash Report) since the road opened to the public.  In the 5,738 accidents, the number of deaths and injured combined was 10,253. The maximum number of accidents (1,219) was in 2016.

Fatal Factors
Piyush Tewari, CEO, SaveLIFE Foundation, a non-profit NGO committed to improving road safety and emergency medical care across India, points to poor law enforcement and infrastructural lapses as main reasons for fatal accidents. “Traffic rule enforcement on our highways have to be urgently improved. Engineering factors need urgent attention, too.

Most of our highways do not have crash barriers and other infrastructure measures which can prevent a crash from becoming fatal,” he says.Typically, in every crash on an  highway or expressway, three fearsome factors are involved: human error, infrastructural faults and speeding. The July 8 crash had all three. The driver dozed off while driving at too fast. He veered off the expressway, drove the vehicle into the mere six-metre wide median for around seven to eight metres and plunged the vehicle into the drain.

The situation could have been different if preventive infrastructure had been in place.   Tewari says, “Since it is human to err, our infrastructure should be prepared for dealing with it to save valuable lives.” The relevant road agencies seem to have overlooked basic norms at the planning stage namely people commit mistakes, a vehicle can lose control, hit a concrete structure like a bridge or a pillar and fall off the road. 

A regrettable reason which makes any road accident-prone is lack of police enforcement. Subhash Chand, Head of the Traffic Engineering and Safety division of Central Road Research Institute (CRRI), attributes the accidents on the Yamuna Expressway to overspeeding, drivers nodding off and tyre bursts. There are speed cameras along the e-way but are not monitored regularly. “Overspeeding on such smooth concrete roads on old tyres will cause them to burst, with fatal results,” Chand explains. Road authorities feel drivers should be informed about accordingly. 

The width of the medians and the construction material also contribute to accidents.
The Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi (IIT-D), under its Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme, was commissioned to study the reasons for the accidents on the e-way in 2018. Its report, ‘Safety Audit of Yamuna Expressway’, has cited medians as a major issue. Authored by Professor Geeta Tiwari and others, the document recommends: (1) replacement of median kerbs with thrie-type guardrails, (2) metal beam crash barriers with impact attenuators (crash cushions), (3) thermoplastic, for its elevated nature, (4) audible markings, (5) retro-reflective signages, and (6) doubling the number of speed cameras.

GK Sahu, Head of the Department of Bridge Engineering and Structures, CRRI, says high-speed corridors such as the Yamuna Expressway must have flush medians of a minimum 10-metre width against the existing less than five-metre dividers. “The painted demarcations on roads to the raised dividers, which often become reasons for accidents when hit by drivers, should be immediately removed,” states Sahu, suggesting that bridges should have signage that points out vulnerable fall-off areas.

The IIT-Delhi report has also suggested adding speed-calming measures like rumble strips (sleepy bumps or wake-up calls) and speed-breakers, removal of sign boards from side lanes to avoid vehicles colliding with them and planting 1.5m-high hedges near underpasses to stop them from becoming temporary stops and accidents spots. The recommendations have also included post-crash arrangements and express ambulances with trained staff.

KK Singh, General Manager, YEIDA and in-charge of expressway, says they are taking various measures to reduce accidents. “We are implementing all the major suggestions in the IIT-Delhi study. We are installing flush crash guards at central locations on both sides of the expressway. There are no major recommendations for infrastructural changes or in engineering but there is concern over poor enforcement,” he explains.

The Yamuna Expressway is an infrastructural paradox—both deadly, and safe and strong. The powerful testimony for the latter came from the Indian Air Force which successfully landed a Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter on the road in 2015, during an exercise to use highways and civil strips for emergency landings.“The highway, reputed to have world-class infrastructure, is third-class in safety. Its surface is very good and vehicles can accelerate up to 200 kmph but safety conditions are poor,” says Tewari.

human to err
Traffic experts are of the opinion that human error and vehicular problems will not go away immediately. It takes ages to change attitudes. They feel that widespread awareness programmes to resolve vehicular problems on highways could be an effective solution. Immediate changes can be made to road infrastructure with Summary Audits. The subsequent solutions  can help reduce the death rate tremendously.

There are four main components to a Summary Audit—identify concrete structures, pin-point drop-off locations where vehicles can fall off, assess conflict situations like villagers crossing the roads, and tag spots where vehicles, especially trucks and buses, are parked. However, on the Yamuna Expressway, it was the fourth factor that led to 77 instances of mass casualties occurring this year— speeding vehicles banging into stationary large vehicles from behind. On March 29, eight people lost their lives and 24 were injured when a UP roadways bus rammed into a parked truck near Greater Noida.

Traffic experts feel that rest stops for fatigued drivers are a must. The authorities should construct side ways and parking lanes to avoid vehicles’ crashes.Chand says, “There are hardly two rest points on the entire expressway. If commuters miss one, they have to drive several kilometres to reach the next. Existing rest points charge a stiff fee, which drivers of trucks and buses cannot afford to pay. They are already stressed doing repeat runs day and night to make as much money as possible.”

GIZMO NO GO
Following the sharp rise in fatal accidents, the Uttar Pradesh authorities in April 2018 started an automated e-challan system to check over-speeding. The YEIDA along with the state police has been issuing on-the-spot challans to violators. Singh says 30 high-speed detection cameras are currently in operation and 30 more will be installed to deter overspeeding.

They capture speeding vehicles and alert officials at the Jewar toll plaza. The culprits are issued challans once they reach the toll plaza.However, it was found that the devices were not in working condition at many places. The server capacity of the National Informatics Centre (NIC) has been exhausted due to the massive volume of data that includes challans, offenders’ details and photographs of vehicles.

The authorities are forced to add the information to the NIC server manually. “The camera takes multiple pictures of a violator, which must be deleted once the challan is issued. But at times, the registration number is unclear at night and the picture isn’t clear. We are in the process of sifting through the data and uploading the photos,” says a senior police officer. The local police are coordinating with NIC officials to fix the backlog.

COP OUT
Five years ago, then YEIDA chairman Rama Raman had sent a proposal to the state to create a dedicated expressway police but the government didn’t pay heed. In the absence of law nforcement, the expressway is an accident-prone place. Initially, there was a proposal for highway policing along 800 km of the highways and the expressway, which was shelved over turf issues. Jurisdiction is still a challenge.

The government has merged highway policing in Dial 100 Project, under which PCR vans are provided to all districts based on requirement. On several occasions, police officials squabble over jurisdiction in crimes and accidents. This only leads to harassment and defeats the idea of improving response time on the expressway. Since the road spans six districts, there have been reportedly thousands of cases of cops fighting over their bailiwicks. Enforcement of traffic rules is poor on the highway. The speed limit for buses is 60 kmph but they regularly cruise at 100-120 kmph, say highway authorities.

“We are aggressively implementing lane-driving and checking overspeeding and have asked the traffic police to ticket violators,” he says, adding that the number of police personnel will also be increased.
“The Yamuna Expressway authority is supposed to submit its report to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath about the accident that took place on July 8, the safety measures required and the solutions,” Singh said. The UP Transport Department will soon train their drivers on proper lane-driving and to prevent overspeeding.

Three mobile speed guns are in use to check drivers stepping on the gas.  Goes the Bachman-Turner Overdrive Roll on Down the Highway song, 

“Cop’s on the corner, look he’s starting to write

Well, I don’t need no ticket so I screamed out of sightDrove so fast that my eyes can’t seeLook in the mirror, is he still following me?”Until road safety becomes an imperative for both users and officials, it will be the pale rider in the rearview mirror.

DID YOU KNOW?

On May 21, 2015, the Indian Air Force successfully landed a Dassault Mirage-2000 on the Yamuna Expressway near Raya village, Mathura, at about 6.40 am. The drill, in a first for military aviation in India, was part of its trials to use national highways and civil airstrips for emergency landing of fighter jets.

938deaths in 5,749 accidents have been reported till July 8 on the Expressway since its inauguration in August 2012 (Average 2 accidents per day or about 782 per year). 

Between 2012 and 2017, a total of 2,30,46,542
overspeeding cases were recorded on camera at toll gates. Of these, Jewar saw the maximum number at 1,07,00,438, while Mathura and Agra registered 70,13,532 and 53,32,572 vehicles respectively.

In 2017, a total of 4,64,910 road accidents were recorded in the country. Of these, 1,41,466 or 30.4% took place on the National Highways, including Expressways, 1,16,158 or 25% on State Highways and 2,07,286 or 44.6% on other roads.

Fatalities on National Highways accounted for 53,181 (36% of total deaths). State Highways recorded 39,812 (26.9%) deaths and other roads 54,920 (37.1%). 

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