Adopting technology for improving road safety

M. Rokonuzzaman | Published: August 24, 2018 21:19:18

Reckless driving has been a grave concern, particularly in developing countries. Recently, such uncontrolled driving made a bus plough through commuters in Dhaka killing two students and injuring many more. This event triggered the outburst of accumulated anger and frustration caused by similar repetitive occurrences. Thousands of students came out on the streets protesting against it for almost a week. Investigations reveal that many of the drivers running buses in cities and highways in Bangladesh are not adequately trained. Moreover, overwork, carelessness and trip-based incentive schemes often led to dangerous driving practices. As a result, despite having the honest intentions of bus owners and regulators, such driving practices on the roads are difficult to monitor, record, and analyse to understand the situation.

Such a lack of analytical insights often constrains the exercise to figure out areas to be improved, and to measure the progress being made. Fortunately, the recent development of diverse technologies in the area of sensors, software, smart-phones and cellular networks has opened up the opportunity to deploy those in monitoring vehicle driving practices. Adoption of relatively inexpensive technology and continuous measurement of driving behaviour and vehicle use appear to have the potential of improving road safety. The following are the relevant issues to be taken into consideration for assessing the feasibility and designing the pathway for taking help from technology and innovation to address road safety.

THE ECONOMICS OF ROAD SAFETY: There would be additional costs to adopt the technology options in monitoring driving behaviour. Cost elements will include funding for research and development, engineering and production of devices, import of components, installation, and analysis of data. There will also be cost for the design and implementation of interventions based on the findings from the analysis of recorded onboard driving data. Any new safety measure should only be implemented after assessing the costs of its introduction and the benefits that it delivers. Estimating the cost of technology may be rather easy. But in evaluating benefits, putting a value on human life is controversial, and many countries explicitly avoid using monetary values. It is also difficult to take into consideration the costs associated with traffic shut downs for hours due to accidents. Such cost estimation becomes exceptionally complicated when large-scale public outburst paralyzes towns and cities. Nevertheless, a number of studies have been carried out on the cost of road crashes. It has been estimated that almost 3 per cent GDP of India is lost every year due to road accidents. On an average, GDP loss due to road accidents in most of the developing countries is somewhere between 2 to 3 per cent of GDP. Such economic loss appears to be significant enough to look into technology options for assessing driving behaviour and figuring out areas where training could be imparted, incentives could be awarded, or punitive measures could be taken for improving the situation.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND ROAD SAFETY: Due to the high importance of road safety affecting development outcome, it is an important sustainable development issue as illustrated by its inclusion in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The target 3.6 aims at reduction of global road traffic deaths and injuries by 50 per cent within 2020; and the target 11.2 is aiming to provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all by 2030.

TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGES: Technologies developed to understand the driving behaviour in advanced countries may not directly work within the context of city transport situation in Bangladesh and many other developing countries. The interpretation of parameters related to reckless driving such as speed, location, acceleration, braking, and cornering would probably have a unique meaning in highly congested cities of South Asia. Very small inter-vehicle distances, and the presence of slow-moving vehicles as well as pedestrians, make it quite tricky to separate safe driving practices from reckless ones by interpreting data. Such unique complexities may demand significant research and development efforts to innovate solutions for meaningful insights about onboard driving practices. Smartphones with many suitable sensors such as accelerometer and GPS sensors could be quite useful as a platform of choice to innovate such in-vehicle monitoring system. Moreover, cameras could be installed at risky points such as bus stoppages to complement the data gathered by an onboard device.

POLICY AND REGULATORY ISSUES: Upon assessing the likely efficacy and cost-benefits, a new set of policies should be implemented. Such policy should include mandatory installation of in-vehicle devices for securing route permit, mainly by city buses. Moreover, policy should consist of issues related to capacity development for supporting the collection of recorded data and analysis, and reporting the analyses outputs with recommendations to stakeholders for necessary actions. Regulations should make sure that stakeholders are implementing recommended actions. Moreover, the legal procedure in dealing with road accidents should also be amended to take into cognizance the analyses produced from data gathered by in-vehicle monitoring devices.

CHANGE MANAGEMENT AND TRUST BUILDING: There may be reluctance from bus owners and drivers to install such devices. Benefits of what could be derived from the interpretation of recorded data, such as training needs, state of overwork, and evidence for legal defence should be adequately communicated. Moreover, continuous research should support the upgrading of algorithms to interpret data that appear to have conflicting meanings. It is to be noted that in the absence of cooperation from key stakeholders, algorithms in understanding data with required acceptance accuracy could also not be developed. The Police force as well as ordinary citizens should also be made aware about the role of such a device, so that once accidents happen, patience is shown by waiting for the analysis of recorded data before taking punitive measures. Moreover, trust should also be developed so that such devices are not subjected to tampering.

In researches in advanced countries, it has been found that the rate of sudden braking as well as acceleration fell from 0.64 events per 100 miles during the first week without feedback to 0.40 (43 per cent lower) during the 20 weeks when drivers received feedback based on the analysis of record data. In general, research has found that recorded data-centric feedback encourages drivers to improve driving practices. It appears that technology and innovation could make it easier to find and implement interventions for improving driving practices. It should also be noted that there are many unforeseen situations in which driving practices run the risk of being misinterpreted-thereby creating the necessity of continued R&D support.  To take advantage of technology and innovations, policy and regulatory framework should also be updated. There is no doubt that we need to adopt an incremental approach for bringing about change. Research and advocacy practice should also be put in place for continuous assessment of the situation, finding underlying causes, proposing solutions, facilitating changes, and pursuing advocacy campaign.

Rokonuzzaman, PhD, is an Academic, Researcher and Activist: Technology, Innovation and Policy.

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