As India’s urban areas grow their transport networks, issues concerning the role of auto-rickshaws and their drivers (known as auto-wallahs) are coming to the fore. While several studies document the total share of auto-rickshaw accidents in all road accidents in India, none isolate the auto-rickshaw driver’s point of view, and few analyze auto-wallahs themselves. The auto-wallah’s perception of road safety may very well be key to overall safety on India’s urban roadways. The viewpoints of stakeholders and potential victims of road accidents, such as the auto-wallahs, can help us understand how subjective assessments of safety can play a role in road safety at large.
Consider the auto-rickshaws in Mumbai, where perennially congested roads and low speeds mean that auto-rickshaws are less likely to cause any serious accidents among pedestrians or two-wheelers relative to larger, faster moving vehicles such as buses or cars. This lowered risk of serious accidents has little to do with the driving habits of the auto-wallahs, as their small vehicles allow them the flexibility of fitting into the nooks and crannies between four wheelers and buses and allow them to flout traffic regulations in other ways.
This begs the question, “What does lead to risky driving behavior on the part of drivers?” Factors could include overconfidence in driving skill, the driver’s ownership of his vehicle, or poor traffic safety enforcement. However, these factors are not well studied. Most of this information can only be obtained via driver surveys on safety, surveys which have not been performed in previous studies.
From gleaned insight into the mentality of auto-wallahs, the presence of a health or medical insurance scheme for the driver may have a significant impact on driving behavior, linked with more responsible and safer driving habits. Furthermore, the current fare system does not adequately account for the opportunity costs of so called “idle time”, or time in between fares, leading the driver to either choose to avoid routes or fares with dense traffic or to drive at a greater speed, putting himself, the passenger and pedestrians at greater risk of road accidents.
Two other, more practical ways to improve driving habits are through driver education about road safety and through helping them understand the role of their service in the urban transportation system at large. This might impress upon them the importance of the service they provide, as well as the need for safe driving practices that are sustainable and beneficial to both the driver as well as the passenger.
While these thought experiments suggest a few ways of overcoming rash and negligent driving, until studies are conducted to understand the perspective of the auto-rickshaw drivers and real world solutions are put in place, there will continue to be increased risk of serious road accidents in congested city roads. By understanding the role of the auto-rickshaw drivers and their safety perceptions, we can only complement the holistic view of a safe, efficient urban transportation system.