FEATURES/Work in Progress | Dec 14, 2012 | 23512 views

How Unmanned Level Crossings Spell Danger

Simple danger signages at unmanned level crossings don't work. A bunch of behavioural consultants have a better idea
How Unmanned Level Crossings Spell Danger
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
DEATH RAILWAY In 2011-12, Indian Railways recorded about 15,000 deaths. Experts say almost 70 percent of these took place at unmanned railway crossings


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. 

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 21 December, 2012
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Comments (18)
Mrs Ranjit Sep 23, 2014
A warning red light with an alarm sound - which will be on when the train enters a 1/2km range can be done using a circuit completion
Deepak Feb 14, 2013
Excellent work by Biju and Finalmile. I would say the biggest appreciation for these guys will be when some government officials and politicians take initiative to implement this at-least in a few level crosses. All the best Biju
Krishna Chandran Feb 14, 2013
Great work by the Finalmile team. One minute of thinking can stop many accidents. People care less for these signage's and get themselves into troubles. How many of us use Foot overbridge at railway stations?
Even if its there nobody cared to use it and still cross railway lines pushing themselves into troubles.

Would love to see Biju and Finalmile team use this scientific approach and behaviour in other areas also. Such an inspiring story for entire India. Because you showed us how a simple idea can be a big eyeopener for millions of us.
Tony Joseph Jan 8, 2013
It’s a great endeavour by Finalmile towards the cause of humanity. I have often seen people crossing the railway tracks in Mumbai with no fear of the incoming train or bothering to look at the signage and often wondered it anything could be done to prevent it. Once I actually saw a middle aged lady get hit by a local train in the crossing near Vile Parle Station and was sleepless for many days. It happened in full view of several people and yet no one could do anything.

This approach of Biju and team, has answered the prayers of many people. It has shown that with the right intention, strong conviction and scientific approach any problem can be addressed.

Our appreciation to the team of Final mile, for rendering this great service to humanity. Also it was very surprising to know that it is done without even charging a single paisa, at a time when greed has overtaken corporates. This at a time , when we see much bigger companies having much higher revenues trying to squeeze as much as possible from Government, evading taxes and exploiting general public.

May you have many more success going forward in this endeavour to improve the world.
Ranjith P S Dec 21, 2012
I am very proud to note that a bright engineer from CET where I graduated too has done where others have missed the obvious. We tend to move with the crowd and not be a trend setter.
Trust you are taking some thing similar to patents for the wonderful work that you are carying out as you need to be applauded and appreciated for your common sense. Words fail me when I read that you are not rewarded financially for the work done.That is not at all fair when anything and everything in this world talks of a financial impact.
Gr8 and keep up the good work.....people like you, can project the God's own country on to the global technical map.
You folks are entitled for Padmashris.......Any body hearing me?
Response to Ranjith P S:
Biju Dominic Dec 24, 2012
Hi Ranjith, thanks for your compliments. We hope to use the unique understanding we have of human behaviour, to solve many more problems in the Indian society.
Gurudas Dec 17, 2012
Dear Biju,
Congratulate Biju and team for the achievement.
I doubt the case study reg the 2 wheeler timing(@ wheelers will get 25% more time with a diagonal speed breaker)
Response to Gurudas:
Ram Dec 18, 2012
Gurudas, thanks for taking the time to read the article and encouraging words. Fair point on the 2 wheelers. I am guessing that this is due to unfamiliarity. May not last, its not designed to work on 2 wheelers...usually they don't get in to trouble.
Neville Bastawalla Dec 17, 2012
Kudos to Final Mile . A lesson for many advertising and communication / marketing professionals.
Response to Neville Bastawalla:
Ram Prasad Dec 18, 2012
Thanks Neville.
Wg Cdr Job Mathew ( Retd) Dec 17, 2012
Excellent job Dominic and team at FinalMile
Response to Wg Cdr Job Mathew ( Retd):
Ram Dec 18, 2012
Thanks Wg Cdr Job Mathew.
Joe Kidd Dec 15, 2012
The speed breaker may cause people to be aware the very first time, but the novelty will wear off. Do you feel that it would have the same effect the second time? I know that the final objective is to save lives, but there are many other issues involved. In Karnataka, (dont know about other places), the landscape is "littered" with unscientific speed-breakers. You have them in the middle of nowhere, with no purpose. They are set up in front of the houses of local politicians as a sign of "honor". I have seen them in the middle of an underpass, there these is absolutely no chance of pedestrians crossing and no chance of any vehicle merging in. You have them so big that your vehicle under-body will touch them, despite all your efforts to avoid the same.
What I am trying to say is that in such a scenario, another back-breaking speed-breaker will be ignored as "just another one".
This movement, in conjunction with the removal of unrequired speed-breakers would be better.

Kudos to FinalMile for their work. I am not belittling your efforts at all. Just genuine feedback.
Response to Joe Kidd:
Ram Prasad Dec 18, 2012
Hi Joe

The thing with a Diagonal speed breaker in our view is that it is difficult to get habituated to. Some measures are easy to get habituated to, some are hard as they work on sensitization. Say, our reaction on spotting a snake like twig, we will have a startle reaction almost every time. In my assessment, the effect should hold up. Let see. And on the crazy designs and usage of speed breakers, my sentiments are the same. I lived in Bangalore and traveled a lot between Mysore and Bangalore. There are one too many of them, unnecessarily so and they are badly designed...not at all as per standards. One of the areas we are focused on is to get Railways to build the speed breakers as per standards. We have a long way to go on Road design but.
Response to Joe Kidd:
Jagwant Singh Mar 19, 2013
I fully agree with Joe Kid. Not only that but speed breakers at an angle are inherently more dangerous than others from the road safety point of view. Besides the additional benefit is marginal.

The requirement is to physically stop road vehicles to get on to the railway tracks whenever a train or other rail vehicle (Railway engine, trolley etc.) is to cross the level crossing. There is also a requirement to stop the rail vehicles on the rails if due to an unforeseen reason the track is blocked due to a stalled vehicle or land slide.

What is suggested is a solid barrier activated on the road as a last resort to stop the road vehicle.

Kudos to FinalMile for their work. I am not belittling their efforts at all. Just genuine feedback and discussion.

Response to Jagwant Singh:
Ram Apr 22, 2013
Jagwant, the long term solution is to actually do away with crossings, either through an underpass or a flyover. Manning is an intermediate solutions, but an expensive one. Incidentally, there are accidents in manned crossings as well. It costs upwards of $10 Billion to man the 15000 crossings by various estimates. We were focused on solving the problem in the interim, as infrastructural changes take a lot of time.

On stopping the train in case of a stalled vehicle, it exists on manned crossings. At unmanned crossings, vehicles in bad conditions is a problem. Stalling usually happens when people notice the train in the last seconds, too little time for train to stop. It requires in excess of 600 meters to stop.

In our study so far, the diagonal speed breakers hasn't caused any mishaps. It is not as smooth as a straight one, but in matters of safety, one has to look at trade-offs. Every solution will have some negative effects and in this case, its a positive trade-off, so far. Lets wait and see if this changes. Dec 14, 2012
Excellent work by Finalmile. Great article explaining the same
Response to
Ram Prasad Dec 18, 2012
Thanks for reading and the compliments
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