Economics of road safety – The Core IAS

Economics of road safety

Law mandate about seat belts

  • According to the Motor Vehicles Act 138(3), fastening seat belts is compulsory for passengers sitting in the front as well as the back seats.
  • Wearing a seat belt reduces the impact of an accident by 80 per cent.
  • Compliance of seat belts in the rear seat is almost non-existent in India. 
  • Government made it mandatory for automakers to provide three-point seat belts for all front-facing passengers in a car, including the middle seat in the rear row of a car.

Reason for the poor road safety record in India

1. Attitude

  • Indians base their choice on several other factors such as initial price, mileage, creature comforts etc instead of safety.
  • Helmet is worn essentially to avoid a challan. Similarly, car users resist wearing seat belts.

2. Affordability 

  • Additional airbags will push up prices; Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had announced the minimum six-airbag rule for vehicles that can carry up to eight passengers. In other words, it can be argued that road safety is a function of income growth in a country.
  • This behaviour can’t be justified merely based on price. A helmet may not cost as much. But belts which are already there and paid for.
  • Data from the rest of the world shows that every economy, even the high-income ones; the so-called developed countries also went through this phase.
  • Traffic death rates are a function of income growth. In other words, there is a general relationship between income growth and road traffic injury such that when countries are poor they experience rising injuries with increasing income; and when countries are rich they experience declines (in traffic injury) with increasing income.
  • After a certain level of economic development has been achieved, countries begin to invest in road safety programs and reduce their road traffic injury rates.

3. Absence of systemic solutions and weak enforcement of laws

  • Researchers arrived at this conclusion by comparing road traffic death rates in high-income countries as a function of (a) economic growth, and (b) time. 
  • The results suggest that the reversal in trend in road deaths in HICs (high-income countries) during the 1960s is not because the countries reached a certain income threshold..

Special changes

  • Driver-oriented approach to a more balanced approach, which later came to be known as the ‘Safe System’ approach. It included interventions that focused on vehicles, road infrastructure, and post-crash care, in a broad view of the environment in which crashes happen. 
  • Implementation and enforcement of many safety interventions, such as airbags, seat belts, energy-absorbing steering wheels, breakaway sign and utility poles on roadways, deformable median barriers, and guard rails among many others.


  • Blaming Indians for being irrational about their safety is a dead end from a policy perspective.
  • Further, while it is true that there is a broad correlation between income levels and road safety, the more salient and actionable insight is that low- and middle-income countries such as India do not have to wait until their per capita income level improves drastically before achieving improvements in road safety.
  • The solution lies not in ad hoc governmental interventions and flip-flops but in creating an institutional framework which has a nationwide mandate and the financial muscle to bring about systemic changes.