Saving lives on India’s roads

December 20, 2012

Even the briefest of journeys along its traffic-congested roads makes clear why India has the world’s highest number of road deaths. Drivers rarely wear seatbelts or respect road rules, and drink-driving is common. In a country with a shortage of ambulances and healthcare staff, getting injured in an accident can often be fatal. When Piyush Tewari’s teenage cousin was injured in a road traffic accident, he lay unattended for 40 minutes while bystanders helplessly watched him die.

To speed up the medical response to road traffic victims, Tewari set up the Save LIFE Foundation in 2008 to train police officers and volunteers in roadside care, including trauma management, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), control of bleeding and spinal immobilization. Tewari was chosen as a Rolex Young laureate in 2010, and, in 2011, he left his job as a senior executive at a private equity firm to become the foundation’s full-time CEO. By May 2012, SaveLIFE had trained over 3,500 police officer responders in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, in basic trauma care skills.

The foundation is viewed as a lifesaver by road accident victims in Delhi, where its methods were first tested. After a car crashed into 21-year-old Rakhi Singh, severely injuring her while she was crossing the road, a professor at Delhi University, SaveLIFE Foundation volunteer Naveen Mittal, came to her rescue. He applied a tourniquet to her thigh wound, which was bleeding profusely, then drove her in his car to a nearby hospital.

Mittal saved Rakhi Singh’s life, says her father, V.V. Singh. “We are deeply grateful to Mr. Naveen for coming forward and helping our daughter after she was hit by a car. Doctors tell us that Rakhi has survived the accident only because she was given first aid and brought to the hospital by Mr. Naveen. God bless him.”

Rakhi is the third road accident victim Mittal has rescued since becoming a SaveLIFE volunteer in 2011. “Being a part of SaveLIFE Foundation has not only given me skills in helping the injured, but also the confidence to step forward and help the injured victims,” he says.

An average of 15 people die every hour on India’s highways. ©Rolex Awards/Jess Hoffman

Tewari’s original plan had been to train about 10,000 volunteers, including shopkeepers and office workers, so that they could offer “bystander care” if they witnessed an accident. Though 8,200 volunteers had been recruited by April 2012, the foundation soon found this approach to be more labour-intensive and time-consuming to implement than they had originally envisioned.

While these volunteers are being trained, SaveLIFE’s “plan B” has been to use mobile volunteers on motorcycles. His has led to the successful establishment of India’s first-ever mobile, first-responder service for road accident victims. The foundation is testing this free-of-charge scheme on an 80-km stretch of India’s national Highway 8 in Maharashtra, which connects Delhi with Mumbai. Access to emergency care is poor in this accident heavy stretch of road, says Tewari. “In this stretch alone, over the past two years, there have been 300 deaths from over 700 accidents.”

The 45 motorcyclists involved are equipped with trauma kits and safety gear, and are linked with cutting-edge mobile phone technology to inform and coordinate police and hospital response staff. While the first responders wait for the team, they can administer basic trauma care to stabilize the patient. The volunteers are well trained – the four-day training programme is so mentally and physically demanding that Tewari estimates only half of those who enrol in the course actually graduate.

The mobile service has proved so successful that the foundation has made mobility via a motorcycle a core criterion, says Tewari. The project is about to launch in Delhi too by the end of this year, he says, but the service will focus on more accident-prone areas.

The foundation is devising two different models, one rural (similar to the Maharashtra one) and one urban (Delhi). “In Maharashtra most of our volunteers are rural, tribal people, whom we have trained to become medical first responders,” he says.

Save LIFE has garnered enormous interest from other regions, but Tewari wants to ensure they have a robust model before it is replicated elsewhere. “Our objective is to make the rural and urban models highly replicable, to document them well and then to export them to the rest of India, the rest of Asia and to Africa.”

While this short-term fix for India’s road traffic fatalities is extremely valuable, Tewari wants to bring about long-term change. His team is hard at work in pushing for policy change through a “Good Samaritan” law or regulation. SaveLIFE is taking action in India’s courts to ensure that people acting in good faith to assist accident victims are protected by law and are not inconvenienced by onerous legal requirements related to their benevolent actions. Such issues have discouraged would-be Good Samaritans in the past. The government has reacted favourably to SaveLIFE’s push for legal protection. “This is an encouraging development,” Tewari said. “We now hope to work closely with the government to expedite the drafting of guidelines and hope that these would be issued promptly.”

Tewari also pays tribute to the commitment of Delhi police in trying to reduce the rate of accidents. “Delhi police have been doing a tremendous job, and we have been pleased with their activism and steadfastness in the task of tightening enforcement.”

Priya Shetty

Learn more about Piyush Tewari

“Being a part of SaveLIFE Foundation has not only given me skills in helping the injured, but also the confidence to step forward.”

Naveen Mittal

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