It was a regular work day for private-equity honcho Piyush Tewari in 2007 when he got news that his 17-year-old cousin had bled to death in a road crash because of lack of timely medical assistance.
This event moved Piyush to such an extent that he quit his job as the India MD of the Calibrated Group —a US-based private equity fund—to establish the SaveLIFE Foundation (SLF), a road safety nonprofit.
With the help of his friend and mentor Krishen Mehta, he set up SLF with a mission to enable Bystander Care—the immediate care that the police and public can provide emergency victims, especially those of road crashes to enhance their chances of survival.
In 2016, road accidents claimed 150,785 lives in India, according to a report by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.
This figure reiterates the findings of a recent World Health Organization road safety report which revealed that ‘India ranks first in road crash deaths and injuries in the world’.
Although road crash deaths reduced by 3 per cent in 2017 from the previous year, India still has a long way to go in making its roads safer.
“We are facing a road safety crisis in India. Every day, 450 people are killed in road crashes across the country. To put things in perspective, it is like having three sold-out A320 or Boeing 737 plane crashes in the country every two days! Yes, it’s shocking. But together we can change this. What people must first know is that the number of road accident deaths in India can be reduced by around 50 per cent if those near the crash scene provide immediate assistance to the victims,” says Piyush.
SLF combines system-change work with on-ground initiatives to improve road safety and emergency medical care across India.
Through SLF, Piyush has successfully championed the Good Samaritan Law and been instrumental in several other road safety policy wins in India. He is currently creating a strong network of first responders in the country through the organisation’s Jeevan Rakshak Program. SLF is also credited with reducing deaths on the Mumbai Pune Expressway by an astounding 30% within the last year alone through a systematic approach to road safety.
Over the years, besides receiving various prestigious awards, he has been invited to events such as the Giving Pledge – a collective of global philanthropists, and featured on Satyamev Jayate, a TV show hosted by Bollywood actor Aamir Khan as well as in publications such as the New York Times and Time Magazine.
Piyush has also been part of the founding team of India Brand Equity Fund, an initiative of the Prime Minister of India to promote India as a globally competitive investment destination. In 2016, GQ magazine listed him as one of the most influential young Indians.
Here are excerpts of our interview with this Ashoka Fellow, Echoing Green Fellow and Rolex Laureate:
Piyush, you founded SLF as a result of a personal loss 10 years ago. What was your vision for the organisation when you started it and how has that vision evolved since then?
When I started SaveLIFE foundation, my vision was that no person injured in a road crash should die merely because of lack of immediate help from bystanders or passersby. To address this, my team and I worked on pushing for the Good Samaritan law that now insulates anyone who comes forward to help road crash victims. Based on this vision, we managed to successfully train thousands of people a year to become first responders to a road crash.
Over the years, the vision evolved as we learnt a great a deal about why crashes happen in the first place. Over a million people are killed every decade in road crashes in India, which could have been prevented. Our vision then expanded to help prevent road crashes. Our current vision is to reduce the road crashes in India by at least 50 per cent by 2022 through a combination of effective road safety policies as well as on-ground interventions.
Having to constantly monitor number of deaths and accidents related to road accidents can be depressing. How do you and your team manage your emotions and stay motivated to achieve the organisation’s vision?
I always tell myself and my team: each time you doubt what you’re doing and you feel low, talk to the victims. That will reiterate why we do what we do. Numbers can make people numb. But when you talk to the people behind those numbers, you will understand the vision and not give up. This is what helps us manage our emotions and stay motivated to achieve our vision. We also celebrate small success. If anyone makes even a small difference to improve road safety, we treat it as a big success.
How successful has SLF been in developing a community-driven chain of survival under its “Jeevan Rakshak Training Program”?
We have seen that our community-driven chain of survival acts as a parallel system, when the first line of survival in the form of ambulatory and medical services do not reach on time. In 2013, we found out that 3 out of 4 people were afraid to take crash victims to the hospital. Since then, we have found that there has been a huge success in how people are now responding to road crashes in places where we have raised awareness and created a network of first responders.
Are these trained first responders also offered treatment to overcome stress or post- traumatic stress disorder, which usually occurs when a person has experienced or witnessed a stressful event?
When we train our first responders to deal with road crashes we make them aware that there will be blood and gore involved. That’s because being a first responder is stressful and this can lead to attrition. Last year, we attempted to create a network of psychologists where each first responder had to mandatorily call a mental health provider, if they have dealt with a fatality. We are still working on how to make this procedure completely efficient and are trying to identify mental health providers who can assist us to resolve this issue.
What have been the biggest challenges that SLF has faced while trying to increase road safety in India through its various initiatives? How have you dealt with this so far?
There are two types of challenges. Our internal challenge is to find good talent to work on this issue. We are often unable to find people who are competent to help us deal with this issue. The external challenge is that because road crashes are spread across the nation, the net impact on the psyche of the policymakers and public is limited. So, our big challenge is to educate and get people to connect with the seriousness of this matter.
People also think road crashes are a middle-class problem. In many cases, people who are killed are the main breadwinners of economically backward families. This means that these families are pushed into poverty the very moment their breadwinners are killed or disabled. So, this is not just a safety issue, it is also a major development issue of the country.
From your experience as founder of SLF, what according to you are the most dangerous attitudes towards road safety that people have today?
I have observed two broad attitudes that people usually have. The first one is invincibility. People believe they are immune to road crashes. They feel they will never be in one. Many also believe they ride or drive well and are very safe on the roads. The second attitude is apathy. If a victim is lying on the road, many people think it’s not their job to help. So, unless we create an empathetic society, we will not completely address this issue.
Besides these two attitudes, there are also specific behavioural issues such as reckless driving in the form of speeding and changing lanes that some motorists have. But besides people operating vehicles, I also want to point out that most of our roads are not designed for people but for machines. They are not at all friendly to pedestrians or cyclists. This sadly shows the attitude of our road designers. In Europe, there are fewer accidents, simply because the roads are designed keeping people in mind.
What techniques does SLF use to ensure that people get emotionally invested in the idea of safer roads?
We have been carrying out various on-ground campaigns where we collaborate with families of road crash victims to become ambassadors for the cause. We have partnered with the Harvard Global Health Institute to bolster our research capabilities and Asia Initiatives, a nonprofit led by Columbia University professor Geeta Mehta to roll out their Social Capital Credits (SOCCs) incentive-based initiative through which drivers and passengers are rewarded for adhering to road safety norms, thereby getting more vested in safety.
What according to you can the public do to support road safety professionals and organisations such as SLF?
There are a number of things the public can do to support road safety professionals and organisations such as SLF. It all depends on where they are based and what they do. Zero Fatality Corridor, our current initiative supported by Mahindra & Mahindra in partnership with Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation and Government of Maharashtra, to make the Mumbai-Pune expressway fatality-free, relies heavily on assistance on people from that area.
The initiative revolves around how to get volunteers to report accidents, any unusual events, road engineering faults, or even stalled trucks. So, people can really help us in a number of ways by volunteering. We also need people to spread the word and raise awareness on the Good Samaritan law and its website www.goodsamaritanlaw.in, which many people are still not aware of. This would really help reduce the road safety crisis that we are trying to address currently.