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Make Way For Ambulances: They're Stuck In Bangalore Traffic

Lanes? What lanes? Bangalore's epic traffic jams make it hard for ambulances to get through. Jagadeesh N.V./EPA/Corbis hide caption

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Jagadeesh N.V./EPA/Corbis

Lanes? What lanes? Bangalore's epic traffic jams make it hard for ambulances to get through.

Jagadeesh N.V./EPA/Corbis

Traffic jams are a part of daily life in Bangalore. Whenever I visit my family there, I'm overwhelmed by it.

Each morning, extraordinary numbers of buses, cars, rickshaws and bikes manage to squeeze onto the city's narrow streets until they all mesh into one chaotic mass. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether traffic is moving forward or backward.

The city has become a hub for India's booming tech industry — but its roads and infrastructure haven't quite kept up.

Last summer, while trapped in a gnarly gridlock, I witnessed the worst side effect of the city's traffic problems: An ambulance was stuck. The roads were so tightly packed, and the commuters so determined to get ahead, that it looked pretty hopeless. It was only after 10 minutes and a lot of shouting from the traffic officer on duty, that the ambulance finally got through.

This wasn't an isolated incident. Last year, an ambulance picked up a two-year-old girl who reportedly had low blood pressure and was having a hard time breathing. The vehicle took two hours to reach a hospital nine miles away, the Times of India reports. The girl died during the journey.

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"Every other day when you go on the street you see ambulances stuck," says Dr. Autosh Raghuvanshi, the executive director of the Narayana Hrudayalaya, a Bangalore-based health care company.

It's not just Bangalore. Ambulance delays have been an issue in New Dehli and Mumbai as well. "This is a crisis situation," Raghuvanshi says.

That's starting to change, says Dr. S. V. Mahadevan, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University. India's first free, public ambulance service, called EMRI, launched in 2005. Mahadevan helped train paramedics and develop guidelines for the program.

"India is far ahead of where it was 10 years ago," when taxis or private ambulances were the only option, he notes.

But it's still a work in progress. Last year, drivers and paramedical staff went on strike, demanding raises and better maintenance for the vehicles. And right now, there's only one public ambulance per 130,000 people.

But India's emergency programs are ahead of many developing countries, Mahadevan notes. Countries like Nepal, Indonesia and Pakistan face similar problems.

"In India, there's a lot of experimentation with getting someone to scene as soon as possible," Mahadevan says.

Here are some of the ideas being tested out:

Ready To Run

In big cities, like Bangalore, the EMRI ambulances park themselves at key intersections during rush hour. That way, paramedics have a head start and can cut down their response time.

Right now, it takes about 15 minutes, on average, for ambulances to reach patients, says Jagadish Patil, who manages the EMRI program for the Indian state of Karnataka. "We want to cut it down to 10 minutes.

Two Wheels Is Better Than None

In August, Bangalore rolled out 20 motorcycle ambulances, equipped with just an oxygen cylinder and a small medical kit, the Times of India reports. Two-wheelers can more easily slip though traffic, so paramedics can reach and start treating patients more quickly. Fully equipped ambulances may still need to trail the motorbike responders in cases where a patients needs to be transported to a hospital.­

India isn't the first country to try out motorcycle ambulances. Dr. Reynaldo Holder, a health care adviser for the Pan-American Health Organization, says he's familiar with their use in Brazil and Colombia as well. "When there's traffic congestion, they can get through the cars and even, in some cases, use the sidewalk," he says. "It's good especially to navigate small, narrow streets." But it's not a perfect system. "These motorcycle ambulances can get involved in traffic accidents because they're moving too fast," he notes. And that's no help to anyone.

Follow The Ducks

By Indian law, cars are supposed to give way to emergency vehicles. In reality, that rarely happens. And drivers rarely pay attention to lane divisions or speed limits. When an ambulance does show up, most drivers have a hard time figuring out how or where to pull over, says B. Dayananda, a traffic commissioner in Bangalore.

So Bangalore's traffic police are trying to reign in the chaos, with a fun new campaign. Billboards posted all over Bangalore feature local celebrities urging drivers to give way for ambulances. Others feature ducks and penguins in single file lines. "If they can follow lane discipline, why can't you?" the posters say.

It's still unclear how well these strategies will work. Still, I'm looking forward to the day when I'll no longer have to worry about loved ones in emergency situation. Mahadevan from Stanford says he's optimistic. "Give them some time to work through the kinks," he says. "Emergency medicine in the U.S. didn't happen overnight."