Highway to Hell

- April 13, 2018
| By : Sashikala VP |

The Yamuna Expressway is a valuable addition to infrastructure but the number of accidents taking place on it raises question marks about enforcement of safety standards It was 8 am when our taxi crossed the Delhi border into Noida. This is not a highway like any other – it has eight lanes, clear signage and […]

The Yamuna Expressway is a valuable addition to infrastructure but the number of accidents taking place on it raises question marks about enforcement of safety standards

It was 8 am when our taxi crossed the Delhi border into Noida. This is not a highway like any other – it has eight lanes, clear signage and advance warning of exits. The long smooth road snakes across the countryside of Uttar Pradesh, dotted by restaurants, small rural settlements, brick kilns and green agricultural fields.

As we drove from Delhi to Agra, we didn’t notice a single police car patrolling the highway. On our way back, perhaps as it was approaching nightfall, we passed just two police cars on the 168-km-long stretch and one silver Expressway vehicle.

The stretch is dotted with police stations, or at least their signboards. But good luck finding them. They are hidden like gems in a dusty land. Which means in case of an emergency, locating them would be a harrowing task.

There are reflective strips on one side of the road but the lack of lighting is something that everyone who has driven on the Expressway comments on. The government has promised to provide lights but it does seem odd that such a simple utility was not provided before throwing open the road to the public.

The most frightening part is when trucks suddenly appear in your sights which don’t have their tail lights on. Any speeding vehicle will little reaction time to prevent an accident, especially at night. Which is just what this story is about.

The Yamuna Expressway connecting Greater Noida and Agra has taken hundreds of lives. As per data provided by the Uttar Pradesh Director General of Police’s office to Patriot, the highest number of accidents have taken place on the road to Mathura, with 14 persons having died in 14 accidents which also left 18 injured –in the first few months of 2018.

This is also the stretch where seven doctors of AIIMS met with an accident in March. The news resonated with the public because like many other tragic stories which have emerged from this road, this was of a celebration turning into a nightmare. Three passed away, including Harshad Wankhede, the Resident doctor whose 35th birthday took the group to Agra. The other two were 25-year-olds Yashpreet Singh and Himbala Taneja.

Taneja was reportedly alive even an hour after the crash but inadequate emergency services have been pinpointed as the reason why she could not be saved, according to one AIIMS doctor quoted in a report. The front of the SUV was mangled when it rammed into a truck with iron rods sticking out. Four survived: Catherine Halam, Mahesh Kumar, Jitender Mourya and Abhinava Singh.

KC Jain, secretary of the NGO Agra Development Foundation had last year filed an RTI whose reply revealed the main reasons for accidents as speeding and tyre burst. But the Expressway, which has taken the lives of 626 people in 4,505 accidents in the five years since it opened, does not seem to be doing much to stop people from dying. Measures to penalise and stop those speeding are conspicuous by their absence. When our team drove down the stretch, not one police car was patrolling the road that morning. On the way back to Delhi, however, we did spot two police patrols, which are clearly not enough.

Geneva-based International Road Federation (IRF) Chairman KK Kapila had in March expressed concern over the increasing number of road accidents on the stretch. He was quoted as saying that most users were not even aware that the road is constructed using concrete, not tar.  construction of Yamuna Expressway. These surfaces, he said, require vehicle tyres and conditions “to be checked along with driving conditions, including weather and visibility.”

The only patrol car we spotted on our way to Agra was from the Yamuna Expressway toll. The police work like an information cell, calling for help when someone’s tyre is punctured or the car gets over-heated or when they spot an accident. They however, have no power to stop a car and challan them for speeding or other traffic infringements.

Surjit, part of the patrol unit, pointed out that passenger cars drive on this road with old worn-out tyres which haven’t been checked. With most drivers speeding, he questions, “How will it work”?

Vivek Srivastava, a school principal who has taken this route from Lucknow to Delhi and back, 6-7 hours each way, says that in cities tyres are filled up to 35 psi. “But when the tyres ply on this road, the heat makes the air expand beyond 55 psi, which then bursts.”

Srivastava found the road absolutely safe, but said it was the way people were driving that was making the highway unsafe, with “vehicles flying like aeroplanes.”

Amongst several directions issued by the Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority (YEIDA) to the Jaypee group running the 165-km stretch, is to install 30 CCTV cameras as well as speed guns at 3 to 10 km intervals so that the speed of vehicles can be monitored.

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has also asked for LED lights to be installed along the entire stretch from Greater Noida to Agra. A report quoted an official as saying that the lights would be installed in three phases.

While barring vehicles from speeding should be of looked at, one other way by which the road itself is becoming a killer is its very smoothness. On the same fateful day that the AIIMS doctors met with their accident, two other people lost their lives when a UP Roadways bus fell off the road, with reports suggesting its driver had fallen asleep.

The seamless drive, without the usual traffic, honking and pedestrians seen on Indian roads, sees drivers dozing off. An ex-serviceman suggests that people should perhaps emulate the armed forces, who while travelling ensure that the co-passenger remains vigilant and engages with the driver.

Rajesh Kumar Sonker, Addtional Superintendent of Police in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, echoes this sentiment. “Drivers and even the co-companion should be alert at all times,” adding that it was the “regular motion of the vehicle on the roads” which lulled drivers into slumber. More so at night.”

While investigation is still on, in the case of the truck that the doctors rammed into, we do know that it was running without a licence, and maybe even without its back lights on. On top of that, there should be a light at the end of protruding rods (and a red flag by day).

The trucks we passed, even as the sun set, did not switch on their back lights. But no patrol cars stopped them. When questioned about this carelessness, Sonker said monitoring was constantly being done and the traffic police were doing their job.

Statistics given by the police station at the toll plaza in Khandoli district reveal that accidents have increased. In 2016, the 12-km stretch that comes under their jurisdiction (148 km to 160 km) witnessed one accident where one person was injured. In 2017 the number became two accidents which left 3 dead and one injured. In 2018, till March there have already been seven accidents which have left three dead and two injured.

Vijendra Singh says that speeding has been the main cause and that accidents usually take place from 3 am to 7 am. During these early morning hours, drivers are generally sleepy and tired, which means they are inattentive, which is why crashes happen. He agrees that if lighting was installed across the entire stretch, it would make the situation better.

Traumas in the making

Rajesh Malhotra, Chief of AIIMS Jai Prakash Narayan Apex Trauma Centre (JPNATC), tells Patriot about the increase in number of cases coming to them from Yamuna Expressway, the incompetence of the highway teams and suggestions to bring down the number of accidents.

In the case involving AIIMS doctors, a doctor was quoted as saying that Dr Hembala Taneja could have been saved if the patrolling security teams would have been better trained. Do you agree?

The response is all about surveillance and communication. I had suggested that any car that passes the first toll and indicates its destination should be tracked. If it does not reach the next toll in a certain time it should be searched for.

How can a toll let through a vehicle that is obviously violating the laws by overloading / no indicator lights / iron bars / girders projecting out?

But what about the response after an accident has taken place?

No effective communication was the first problem. Competency of the team and response time was questionable. They were not good at extricating (the persons) from the wreck. It needs special equipment and special skill — not available, obviously.

Have you increasingly encountered cases from Yamuna Expressway?
Quite frequently. It is fraught with risks

Can you give us some numbers? Please explain the risks
Every few weeks there is an accident. I think there is no enforcement of speed limit. We see patrol cars but do they really patrol at night? Night travel in the expressway is particularly hazardous. What measures are in place to avert those?

Is night travel particularly hazardous because of drinking?

In the case of our doctors, all were teetotallers. So, while drunk driving may be a cause in majority of speeding vehicles, (here) hazardous vehicle on the road was the cause. The general pattern is heady mix of alcohol and over speeding at night.

Our highway authorities should (also) take steps to prevent drivers from sleeping at the wheel. Abroad, there are special rumble strips to wake you in case you are tending to go dangerously close to the verge or embankment.