I have a hilarious anecdote about Indian roads and driving on them. Back in 2008, I was in the Netherlands for an onsite assignment. One day, as I was returning to my desk after lunch, I saw everyone in my team crowded around one person’s desk. Intrigued, I went and peered over their shoulders. What I saw astounded me. They were watching a video on YouTube of traffic on a Indian road somewhere in north India. It was a junction with roads on all 4 sides. Vehicles were flowing in every direction together. There was no policeman manning the traffic and there were no traffic lights. My colleagues were watching it with gaping mouths and wondering in disbelief how in heaven’s name is this possible.
Compare this to road rules they follow. I was in a place called Utrecht about 40 minutes drive away from Amsterdam. On most of the roads inside the city, only one vehicle could go at a time. There was no overtaking. No speeding. Pedestrians have to press a button and wait for the signal to change to cross roads. People follow this rule even when roads are totally empty. Honking is treated as abusing and reserved for only the most nasty situations. In six months, I heard a vehicle honk once that’s it. I saw police vehicles only four times.
Life became extremely stressful for me after I returned to India. Traffic on Indian roads and behavior of drivers defy all conventional logic. I know how to drive a car but I don’t drive. I learnt to drive on one of the most crowded roads and narrow by-lanes in Bangalore. I had to constantly keep shifting the gear, brake continuously, watch vehicles around me all the time and in spite of all of this, I could get into an accident anytime because of someone else’s mistake. Such horrific driving situations require excruciating and constant focus and concentration for extended periods of time, which is extremely tiresome especially after working for long hours. I believe I can do other things with the energy I expend on driving. It is so much easier to hire a cab or use public transport. There is also a psychological advise to not drive when we or someone very close to us is in distress like a medical situation. When we are emotionally connected to those people, their distress affects our emotional balance as well. This is one reason for road rages. When people drive in emotional stress or anxiety, tempers can fray quickly that too in congested Indian driving conditions.
Road traffic and parking problems are not just the curse of Indian cities alone. London traffic is nothing short of the same nightmare. An ex-colleague in the Netherlands was staying in Amsterdam and travelling by train to Utrecht for work. When I asked her why she didn’t have a car she said there was no place to park vehicles in Amsterdam. I have heard about a new rule that has been introduced in Bangalore that only people who own apartments can buy cars now. Makes sense. Most independent houses available for rent do not have car parking space. People who rent those houses park their cars on the streets and sidewalks during the night. Tyre theft and vandalism is quite common in cities. A close friend of mine had parked his car outside his own house and had gone inside to call his mother and sister to go for shopping. When he returned what he saw was someone had drawn a line across the entire length on one side of the car with a sharp object. He had to shell out Rs. 15,000 for no reason.
Now, how do we make driving in India safer and better? Simply building better roads, flyovers and highways are only increasing road accident cases because of speeding. This is because there is a difference between teaching how to drive and teaching how to drive with discipline. I have heard that people in Europe, North America and Middle East take driving tests as seriously as their college exams. They get disqualified for the silliest of mistakes. This is how gold standard is set. There is so much discussion about making public transport better to reduce privately owned vehicles but no one talks about reducing the number of licensed drivers. Corruption is so rampant that it is easy to pay money and get through driving tests. Those people might learn to drive with time but fundamental difference is they will not be disciplined drivers and they are the ones who are likely to cause more mayhem on the roads. State governments have to take stringent measures to identify rogue drivers and cancel their licenses. I believe this alone with reduce number of drivers by at least 25%. A simple example is high beam lights on vehicles. They are supposed to be directed towards the roads but almost all vehicles have those lights directed straight up onto the faces of drivers of vehicles on the opposite side of the road which is a good reason to cause accidents on highways.
Technology can definitely play an important role in making driving safer. Mr. Prasad Pillai, a batchmate from my engineering college Alma mater has created Raksha Safe Drive, an innovative device that senses impacts on cars and informs pre-loaded emergency numbers along with live locations. It includes other nifty features such as one-touch calling for emergency services including the police and medical assistance.
But we all know the age old adage that prevention is better than cure. I believe a few simple steps can make the lives of everyone on the roads easier.
1. Avoid driving as much as possible. Use public transport wherever available.
2. Start early. Reaching early never stresses us out. It is the apprehension of reaching late that builds stress within us and induces mistakes when driving.
3. Avoid all conversations while driving other than emergency calls. If there are any distressing news, do not drive anymore. Park the car somewhere and use public transport or hire cabs. I would say avoid even music that causes our emotions to sway. All our emotions are intertwined and we cannot switch off our personal ones when we are in office or when we are driving. This understanding is very important to avoid emotional upheavals and outbursts and music can also be a trigger to this.
In the video my Dutch colleagues were watching, what was remarkable was the absence of any traffic police personnel to control traffic. It has been commonly observed that it is the presence of traffic police personnel that actually creates traffic congestion. I still do not know if it is their lack of management skills or people getting nervy at the sight of them or a combination of both or something else. There is a common jibe against the police that during month ends and festive seasons, they get on to the streets to harass drivers and extort money from them. The option they give to drivers is to pay an exorbitant penalty in court or pay less to them and get away. If the keepers of the law themselves become extortionists and let off rogue drivers then we can only expect driving incidents to keep increasing exponentially.
Just as we are not ready for democratic governance we are also not ready to be sensible drivers. It is mainly with our attitude created from our culture. After all, we are descendants of Indians who first used cars as garbage carriers and that too Rolls Royce cars. Could it be this arrogance we are carrying forward as a heritage? When I was in the Netherlands, my Indian colleagues would never press the button and wait for the signal to change before crossing roads. They would cross as they would in India, even when vehicles were coming. We are extremely resistant to changes and particularly reluctant to imbibe new practices that go against or question our existing beliefs and life patterns. Unless we evolve and mature to accept our mistakes and prepare ourselves for changes, no amount of better roads and road signs and technology can make driving safer in our country.