How Unmanned Level Crossings Spell Danger
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
ne recent evening, about 40 km from Bangalore, three men stood near an unmanned level crossing, examining the signages under the golden yellow glow of a sodium vapour lamp above and waiting for a vehicle to pass by. After about 15 minutes, a mini truck scraped through the horizon. As it neared the level crossing, it suddenly swerved from left to right, as if shaken by an invisible giant, leaving the driver, a man in his forties, startled.
That was the ‘eureka’ moment for one of the observers, who told the others: “That is the key. The way it shakes up the driver makes him alert.”
What shook the vehicle and jolted the driver out of his stupor? It was a speed-breaker, about 10 feet from the tracks, that ran diagonally, rather than perpendicular, to the road. When the front wheels of the mini van crossed the bump one after the other, rather than in unison, the van swung from side to side.
The people who designed the oddball speed-breaker belong to a company called FinalMile Consulting and the man who runs the show is Biju Dominic. They are into what they call ‘behaviour architecture’ and here’s how they helped the vehicle avert a mishap at the unmanned level crossing.
The speed of the mini truck was reduced when it hit the speed-breaker. Before it was installed, a truck or a tractor would take about 12 seconds to cross the distance of 10 metres. Now, it takes about 16 seconds. That gives the driver about 25 percent more time to observe and understand the driving condition.
What kicks does FinalMile get out of the exercise? Nothing, except that it helps save lives. If you doubt whether something as trivial as a speed-breaker does something as earth-shattering as saving lives, think about the last close shave you had while driving. What if you didn’t have to slam the brakes at the last minute because you had noticed danger signs seconds earlier? That’s exactly what the diagonal speed-breaker does. It warns you about impending danger and gives you those valuable extra seconds.
Infographics: Sameer Pawar
Death on the tracks
Unmanned level crossings spell danger across the world. In India, there are about 13,530 of them. Though Indian Railways does not divulge the actual number of deaths at unmanned level crossings, a back-of-the-envelope calculation can help us understand the gravity of the situation. According to a high-level safety committee set up by the government of India earlier this year, Indian Railways recorded about 15,000 deaths in 2011-12. Experts say almost 70 percent of these took place at unmanned railway crossings.
The government can eliminate the danger altogether by shutting down the unmanned crossings, making them manned or constructing roads either above or below the railway tracks. The railway ministry is considering these options. But more deaths are likely to slip past the bureaucratic red tape.
Consider this: Sixty crossings could not be closed despite commissioning of overbridges, due to technical difficulties and the costs involved. Even if the railway ministry garners the political will, the financial muscle and operational flexibility to eliminate all unmanned railway crossings, it might take years to achieve that goal. Ten thousand and five hundred lives a year—or even one for that matter—is too high a price to pay. So, what’s the way out? Enter Biju Dominic.
Behaviour is the key
Dominic did a BTech in mechanical engineering from College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, but even as a student, he was more interested in “human beings than in machines”. He has a wide-ranging interest and draws insights mostly from cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics. Both have come into prominence in recent years, the former thanks to advancement in neuroimaging, and the latter due to some very interesting research by the likes of Daniel Kahneman (who won a Nobel in economics) and Richard Thaler. While these fields of research set parameters to understand human behaviour, Dominic and his team at FinalMile have used these to explain and influence it.
They started with business—using cognitive neuroscience to study human behaviour and assist companies in devising better marketing strategies, for example. It still remains their bread and butter.
They turned their attention to public safety in 2009 with a project to minimise deaths from trespassing along Mumbai’s suburban railway network. That’s no easy task, considering that trespassing used to take at least one life every day. This despite putting in place all traditional methods to spread awareness: Danger signages, educational programmes, awareness drives. Nothing worked.