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July 13, 2003

Current Events

uClose encounters
uExpect anything
uCars are the most harmful
uGolden tips for drivers

Driving India crazy
Heavy traffic, poor infrastructure and absence
of a road culture bring out the worst in drivers.
A zip through metros...

By N. Bhanutej

One hand on horn,
One hand greeting,
One ear on cell-phone,
One ear listening to loud music,
Foot on accelerator,
Eyes on female pedestrians,
Conversation with someone in next car-Welcome to India!

-A joke on driving in India in a Web site.

Take a drive down any metro in the country for the quintessential Indian experience: it is a harmonious anarchy. One good place to start is Delhi. At the Income Tax Office junction, one of the busiest crossings, right under the Delhi Police headquarters, drivers clamour for every inch of space, rev up engines at the red light and jackrabbit their way through the maze of traffic. After all, minor bumping on the road invites nothing more than a few invectives. That is if you can hear them. Drivers in the city honk at even potholes and speed-breakers!

Driving at 70 kmph on Noida mode (crossing), you get overtaken from all sides by cars doing speeds above 100 kmph. It resembles the starting lane of a Formula-1 race where drivers clamour to make that first turn. I do the best thing possible in the circumstances: turn on the indicator of my car and move to the slowest lane on the left. For once, I don't mind the world passing me by.

But time moves slow in Old Ahmedabad, where crawling at 10 kmph, I have to drag my feet on the road, my scooter perilously close to the wheels of buses and camel-carts. Overtaking an autorickshaw, I see its driver put his foot out of the vehicle as if to kick my scooter. I slow down to avoid it, but a friend tells me that it is an accepted sign for a right turn. The autorickshaw drivers here signal with their feet.

On the other side of the Sabarmati, in modern Ahmedabad, nothing is more modern than its cars, wide roads and tall buildings. People open their car doors while driving to spit pan juice. Most vehicles here have a generous red sprinkling.

Pull over for a thought, readers. Why do we step on the accelerator when the traffic light turns red? Or overtake from all sides, chase pedestrians on to non-existing footpaths, refuse to wear helmets, use high-beam lights to blind others, talk away on cellular phones while switching lanes and park under the 'no-parking' sign?

But everyone asks the same set of self-righteous questions. Everyone has the it-was-not-my-fault attitude, especially after accidents which kill 215 people every day in India. In other words, there is an accidental death on the roads every 6.5 minutes. According to figures by the Road Safety Cell of the Union ministry of road transport and highways, there were 3.9 lakh accidents in 2000; 78,911 were killed and 3,99,265 injured.

Over the top: Quick thrills could kill

Say what you will about poor traffic sense and awareness of road rules, but Dr T.S. Reddy, head of the traffic and transportation division at the Central Road Research Institute in Delhi, says Indian drivers are the best where skill is concerned. "Considering the conditions in which we drive, our drivers are not killing many people," he says. "Since our speeds are lower than in foreign countries, we manage and manoeuvre vehicles with less damage."

Reddy believes driving needs both road sense and the necessary infrastructure. He has a point. In the last 50 years, India's automobile population has grown 170 times while the road infrastructure has expan-ded only nine times. The country's vehicle population is over 5.5 crore and growing at a phenomenal rate of 25 lakh every year.

Negotiating through such messy roads is a horrible deal. Manoranjan Batabyl earns his living by driving century-old trams on the busiest streets of Kolkata. David, the foreman at the tram workshop, believes Manoranjan is the best driver-he can drive without brakes!

It is another force of habit that bothers Dubey, a taxi driver (from Uttar Pradesh) in Mumbai. Inching his way through peak-hour traffic, Dubey points out the bad drivers. "See how he brakes," he says pointing to an Accent Viva. "These youngsters don't know how to drive. But they have power steering, power brakes and God knows what else."

Advances in technology help one 'zip' through traffic (thanks to power steering), have 'total control' (anti-skid braking systems) and 'total safety' (with air-bags, crumple zones and side-impact beams). But restraint is the last thing automobile manufacturers preach, what with slogans like 'Rule the road', 'refined aggression' and a two-wheeler named 'Eliminator'. No wonder Dubey thinks life was easier until new-generation vehicles appeared on the roads.

For some, technology is just useless. R.A. Thakur of Kolkata prefers to keep the side-view mirror of his Indica folded lest someone should hit and break it. Others stick their rear-view mirrors (some even the windshield) with slogans and faces of their favourite actors.

Daredevils: A recipe for disaster

Thakur can hardly be blamed because all vehicles-taxis, trams, buses and auto-rickshaws-are so severely dented that most look like battered tin boxes. The rule here is: Acknowledge the right of way of everyone else. Even at the busy five-point crossing, there are no traffic signals. The lone sergeant-as a traffic cop is called-uses all his faculties to control the junction.

The crucial test of nerves for me comes when I am sandwiched between two buses. The bus on the right wants to go left and the one on the left wants to go right. A defensive driver, I make way for them. And lo, I am bang on a tram track with one heading straight at me. In typical Kolkata style, I power the car to the right, unmindful of the traffic behind. The taxi to my right and the vehicles behind it screech to a halt, leaving me to think about my guide's advice to allow him to chauffeur me around.

"Transferring our headache to the driver ushers in peace of mind. Teaching for hours after a horrifying drive is the last thing I want," says Pranava Manjari, an English lecturer in Delhi. Her driver, Chunni Lal, switches lanes without batting an eyelid at speeds ranging from 60 kmph to 70 kmph. "If you don't drive like this in Delhi, you won't get anywhere. And I am a safe driver, sir," he says, pointing out that the Zen has not a single scratch-an achievement in Delhi's bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Driving a car through Lakdikapul area in Hyderabad could make one go in circles. I want to turn left, but the traffic pushes me to the right. "At this rate, you won't survive in our city," says Rehman, my guide. "Think of yourself and don't bother about others."

Within an hour, I drive like a Hyderabadi, winning Rehman's approval. The most striking feature of driving here is long stretches of unimpeded speed-usually on the countless flyovers-punctuated with dead stops because of bottlenecks. While traffic rules are enforced on 'elite' roads, it is freewheeling in the narrow bylanes. Getting used to these two worlds is the challenge.

Jumping red lights! A scene in Delhi

In Chennai, too, you unlearn the rules as soon as you are out of the VIP roads. A zigzag drive through potholed roads and using hand-signals (to tell those behind you that you have not forgotten to switch off the indicator), I reach a traffic sign that tells me to maintain lane discipline. On Mount Road all vehicles fall in line: buses on the extreme left, four-wheelers in the middle and the two-wheelers and autorickshaws on the extreme right (the fastest lane). This discipline is maintained for about 3 km, at the end of which there is a mad rush to criss-cross to get back to a convenient lane.

Speeds in the city are thankfully low, but youngsters use some roads like the Marina Beach stretch to test their top speeds. The worst traffic jam was in T Nagar. Reason: A funeral procession on the main road. And mind you, the safest mode in Chennai is the public transport-provided you survive the walk to the bus stop.

"Where do we walk," asks K. Satyanarayana, who teaches at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages in Hyderabad. "Pedestrians are treated worse than street dogs. Crossing a road takes me ages. You can be killed any moment."

While roads are widened to allow the increase in vehicle population, side-walks for pedestrians have shrunk. The pedestrian's right of way at zebra-crossings is something of a dream.

Youngsters like Sandeep Jajodia of Hyderabad would rather ride their bicycles, but are forced to use "safer" (read public transport) modes of transport because cycling on an Indian road could be the next best thing to suicide. "We are moving towards the west. Why can't we learn from China where even top executives ride their bicycles to office?" he asks. "But the government should first make dedicated lanes for cyclists."

But Indian traffic, a joke says, is structured like its caste system: Trucks and buses come first, followed by cars, autorickshaws, cyclists and pedestrians. Nearly 20 per cent of accident victims are pedestrians and another 15 per cent cyclists.

On their part, bus drivers sometimes choose to convert the middle of the road into a stop. Narasimha, the driver of a Road Transport Corporation bus on the undriveable Ameerpet-Kukadpally route in Hyderabad, sits in the dilapidated driver's cabin and demonstrates his driving skills on a 40 degrees Celsius afternoon. "This is my AC, sir," he says, pointing to the noisy engine that radiates heat directly to his body.

Krishna Chaudhary, who lives and drives in Kolkata when she is not visiting her grandchildren in Bangalore, says the drivers of trams, buses and autos ought to get some consideration. "They do nothing else but drive the whole day," she says. "It must be a terrible job." A recent survey on 727 heavy vehicle drivers showed that negative attitudes and psychological stress of drivers caused many accidents.

Mohammed Yousuf drives the much-maligned autorickshaw in Hyderabad's Old City area. "Everyone blames us for chaos. In fact, we reduce traffic jams by driving through any available space on the road," he says. As M.K. Subramanian, secretary of the Automobile Association of Southern India, puts it, "Autos enter with their nose and wedge their way into any available gap on the road".

Shivaswamy, 41, of Hiriyur near Mysore, has been a traffic constable in Bangalore for eight years. "We are always told to enforce lane-discipline," he says. "But how can we? People should be given more traffic education." The Institute for Road Transport Education in Delhi had tried to include road safety in the curriculum, says its president Rohit Baluja, but parents, teachers and students did not want another book in the already-heavy schoolbag.

"Much as Indian drivers wish to exhibit good culture, road conditions have not encouraged them to cultivate it," he adds. "The law does not tell you to be courteous. That has to be cultivated by providing the right infrastructure, ideal conditions and proper enforcement."

He cites the example of the Mandovi and Zuari Bridges in Goa, where IRTE is implementing a pilot project for highway safety. "First, we set the road engineering right, then we put our cameras in place," he says. "Now nobody drives above the stipulated 30 kmph."

The Kerala government has proposed an overhead high-speed transport system to ease the traffic congestion in Kochi. The Rs 830-crore sky bus project is slated to be a trailblazer not just in transport infrastructure but in safety as well. "At present, a 1 km sky bus project is being implemented in Goa and after studying its results, the project will be implemented in Kochi," says Jiji Thomson, managing director of the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation. The plan is to introduce this without disturbing the present traffic system. The road network in the city has not increased in proportion to the traffic growth.

Poor infrastructure notwith-standing, most accidents take place because of the driver's fault, says C. Kurien Mathew, who heads the Loss Prevention Association of India's office at Kochi. "This can be reduced by training drivers and enforcing rules."

Dr Reddy believes in ruthless punishment for erring drivers. But according to him the basic flaw is in the process of issuing licences. "Through driving schools, we are only managing the licensing procedure, but not training drivers," he says.

Perhaps, traffic planning too is as whimsical as it is on the road. Dr P.S. Pasricha, director-general of police, Maharashtra, and chairman of the All India Road Safety Programme Implementation Committee, points out that there is a lack of "decisiona-bility" in the area of traffic planning. "In committees, professionals are ignored and self-styled champions of road safety are included," he says. "Seat-belts are required for highway driving. But we implement these piecemeal measures inside cities."

Prof. Dinesh Mohan, Henry Ford professor for transportation safety at IIT, Delhi, agrees with him. "Most countries have a multi-disciplinary approach to traffic planning and road design. It is done by psychologists, engineers, doctors, sociologists and vehicle experts. In India, traffic is still a civil engineering issue."

Dr Thomas Chandy, director of Hospital for Orthopaedics, Sports Medicine, Arthritis and Accident-Trauma in Bangalore, has been campaigning for making helmets compulsory, but in vain. HOSMAT attends to at least 15 accident-trauma cases every day. "People say helmets are expensive, but is it more expensive than life?" he asks. "Over 75 per cent of cases are two-wheeler related. Head injuries are common because helmets are not compulsory. Two such cases are from driving without seat-belts in cars." Add to this self-centredness and lack of civic sense-it is a perfect recipe for disaster.

Drivers in Mumbai are, by far, the best. They maintain lane discipline, slow down at traffic intersections, rarely overtake from the left, and don't encroach on pedestrian crossings, long traffic jams notwithstanding. They don't blind oncoming traffic with high-beam lights thanks to the well-lit roads. Driving through peak hour traffic from VT, Nariman Point, Marine Drive and Malabar Hill, I feel humbled by the good drivers in Mumbai. As I prepare to leave the city, thoroughly impressed, I read a story in a local eveninger. A BEST driver nearly ran his bus over two young men because of a tiff. Ironically, they call it road rage.

King of the road
Be it on highways or alleys, trucks and buses have the right of way. Together, they killed 33,736 people in India in 1999.

One, two ka four
You've seen them, though not frequently. A boisterous gang of youngsters on a two-wheeler, careful not to let themselves in a cop's sight. Some 'high' school activity.

One for the road
Fuel: Something that maintains or stimulates an activity or emotion. If the engine needs it, so does the driver.

Dial M for murder
Studies in South Africa, Canada and Japan have shown that out of every four car crashes one is cell-phone related. Using mobiles in many countries is illegal. If only driving were hands-free.

All in the family
A common sight on Indian roads. Anyway, multi-utility vehicles are the rage now.

Left is right
Overtaking from left, right and centre. That is a highway code.

Pulling their weight
"Our bodies are our engines, our feet are the brakes," say Ram Asish Das and Lal Dev Das of Kolkata. They pull rickshaws for a living.

The worst casualty
Twenty per cent of those killed in road accidents are pedestrians and another 15 per cent cyclists.

Licensed to kill
Teenage drivers, especially those without licence, increase the risk of a crash.

Space craft
The common man's taxi, it can wedge its nose through the eye of a needle.



Vikas Bhalla, actor-singer
Driving on Mumbai roads is pathetic and I prefer driving in the night. Now with the rains, the traffic congestion is much more. The situation in Delhi is just as bad. There is one thing good about Delhi, there are four different ways to go to any destination but in Mumbai there is only one way to reach anywhere.

Neelima Chakravarthy, scientist, Central Road Research Institute
Indian driving can be best described as unplanned, impulsive behaviour behind the wheel. Nobody knows what will happen.

Vidya and Ram Pradeep, doctors, Chennai
Our American friend did not stop blowing the horn when we visited him in the US. He said it was to remind us of our hometown!

Manoj Bajpai, actor
Your mind has to be on the road and your car. I wonder how couples drive on such roads. The poor girlfriend or wife may be wanting the guy to talk to her, but the hassled man must be trying to juggle his attention on the more demanding roads!

Sandeep Chowta, composer-singer
No matter how careful you are somebody will invariably come in your way and it is 'always' unintentional and they are never to blame! It could be another car cutting you, or a cow trying to cross the busy road. I used to get angry earlier but now I just sit back and enjoy my music.

Close encounters
Seshadri survived more than 25 major accidents

Admittedly, there is not a bone in his body that was not broken at some point or the other. The collar-bone was broken "a few times". The wrists, the ribs, the femur, the tibia, the ankle, the toes and fingers-name it and Bangalore-based S.K. Seshadri, journalist and film-maker, has a story to tell how it was broken.

Though 74, Seshadri's frame does not betray the beating it has taken from the more than 25 major accidents and as many minor ones in his life. A two-wheeler lover in his younger days, Seshadri met with his first accident in 1960 on the Chittoor-Tirupati road in Andhra Pradesh. An hour before sunrise, a bullock-cart crossed the path of his Enfield 350. The bull's horns missed him by a whisker, but the cart struck him in his ribs. Seshadri fell down and could not breathe. But he still made it to Tirupati. He went to a doctor only after returning to Bangalore that evening. The X-ray revealed broken ribs.

In 1962, driving his bike yet again near Malleswaram Circle in Bangalore, Seshadri had a serious fall that split his knee-cap. He was laid up for six months. "I have fallen countless times. I must have had over 25 fractures. But most of them were because of other people's fault," he says. The Malleswaram accident, he recalls, occurred because a cyclist lost control when his cycle's chain snapped on a gradient. Seshadri braked so hard that the bike skidded and fell to the right. The right knee took the impact of the fall.

Seshadri's sons and wife were so rattled by his susceptibility to accidents that they sold his two-wheeler without his knowledge. He bought a Morris Cowli and later a Ford Prefect, both of which are vintage cars now.

Accidents would not leave Seshadri alone. Once a bus missed by a hair's breadth the autorickshaw in which he was travelling in Delhi's Vasant Kunj, but in the process of avoiding the accident, the autorickshaw overturned. Twice Seshadri was in hospital with concussions, but escaped from death because of his helmet.

Expect anything
That's a westerner's view of driving in India

By Bob Hoekstra

In the US, drivers have a certain tendency to be polite. They drive slowly and allow a lot of space between vehicles. In California, the highest in the hierarchy of road-users is the pedestrian. When I stepped on the street in Los Angeles, I felt like Moses because the sea of traffic-like Red Sea-simply opened to give way for me. I tried to cross a street in Kolkata once, but the sea did not open. You have to push the traffic if you want to cross. Otherwise, you will never get a chance. On wide streets, vehicles keep coming; pedestrians keep pushing their way, but more and more vehicles keep coming. You are putting your life in danger. It is a totally different experience.

'Scare the hell out of me': Hoekstra

I ride a mountain bike, drive 535 CC Enfield and drive a Tata Safari in Bangalore. Driving the Safari takes me closest in the power-game with buses. But when I am driving the motorcycle-which is lowest in the hierarchy-I anticipate others' moves, yield to everyone and everybody. After all, it is my head that's at stake.
In my driving, honking is totally banned. It really scares the hell out of me when bigger vehicles honk and miss my bike's mirror by millimetres. That's why, I use the motorcycle only on Sundays.

Once, an absolute nitwit of a driver drove me from Delhi to Agra. He understood nothing of what I was trying to tell him, and was going over 100 kmph. He nearly missed a cow, and when I shouted at him, he said: "In India, you need three things to drive. A horn, a brake and courage."

In Rotterdam, there are a lot of rules which people obey. The rules are quite confusing. Here, there is no confusion. It is a power game. Half the time, there is either a temple, a tree or garbage on the left-side lane of roads. On my journey from Ooty recently, there could have been so many head-on collisions. It's amazing how they drive. 'Here I am coming, and I am not yielding' is the philosophy. The bottomline to driving here is 'Expect Anything'.
(The writer is CEO of Philips Software Centre, Bangalore.)

Interview/Prof. Dinesh Mohan, Henry Ford professor for transportation safety, IIT-Delhi
Cars are the most harmful

By N. Bhanutej

Prof. Dinesh Mohan does to transportation research what Marx did to Hegelian dialectics-turn it upside down. Ask him about bullock-carts congesting the roads and he tells you "it is good to have non-motorised traffic considering the huge import bill". On the contradictions of technology in the Indian context, he zeroes in on how "we are only importing cars but not the concepts of how to have sustainable transport". While every city in the country is worried about widening roads, Prof. Dinesh talks about narrowing them. Excerpts from an interview:

Are we a country of bad drivers?
Every country is proud of saying that it is a set of bad drivers. It is not special to India. I have visited about 60 countries. In all the countries, people believe they are personally good drivers and that everyone else is bad.

What about the road sense of Indians?
There is no such thing as intrinsic road sense. If there is, then there is nothing wrong with ours. What's wrong is road design. When a German comes here, he drives like an Indian. And when an Indian goes to Germany, he drives like a German. About eight years ago, we, at IIT, studied foreigners driving in Delhi. They were driving faster, jumping more lights and cutting lanes more often than we do.

Which is the best-designed road in India?
None. Even the Mumbai-Pune expressway is badly designed. It is a good surface, but has violated many international safety norms.

What factors go into making good roads?
First, we have to look separately at inter-city roads, city roads and village roads. The international norm states that the speed of vehicles inside cities should not exceed 50 kmph (30 kmph in residential and office localities). The speed should be controlled through design and not by enforcement. Which means there should be narrow roads with many turns, dead-ends, speed breakers every 70 to 100 metres so that children can walk on roads if necessary.

Inside cities, pedestrians should get top priority, followed by cycles, cycle-rickshaws, buses, motorcycles and cars. This is in the order of decreasing sustainability. That is, pedestrians occupy the least space, pollute least and kill nobody. Cars, on the other hand, occupy more space per passenger transported, pollute more per passenger and kill more number of people per passenger transported by them. From the societal point of view, cars are the most harmful mode of transport.

What then is the ideal mode of transport?
We should be talking about cycling and walking, which most young people prefer. We should make these modes safe. If walking is made safe, public transport will get used more. At present, there is no city in India that gives importance to pedestrians or cyclists.

Cars transport less than 20 per cent of people in all the cities, but they are given most importance. By giving importance to this minority, we are polluting and killing people. This is an example of undemocratic policy-making.

What is your remedy for the situation?
The first thing is to separate different modes of transport on the road. The accidents will go down by 60 to 70 per cent. Pollution will reduce by 20 to 30 per cent. And, many more will walk, use cycles and public transport. This can be done easily, and will cost 1/40th of the cost of a metro system. You can have 1,500 km of dedicated bus lanes for the cost of constructing 20 km of metro.

What is your opinion on autorickshaws on our roads?
Autorickshaw is an ideal form of public transport. When run on CNG/LPG (or with a catalytic converter in a 2-stroke auto) they pollute much less per passenger transported since they have small engines. They also consume less fuel, occupy less parking space, cause less congestion and wear out the road only one-fourth of what a car does.

Golden tips for drivers

uYou are not the only one on the road. Have consideration for others. If someone is catching up and wants to overtake, let him.

uGetting a driving licence is not a right, but a privilege which has to be earned. Learning to drive is not enough. Go through procedures, understand the rules of the road and right of way of others.

uA car or motorcycle is a lethal weapon. You may kill someone or may be killed if you do not use it responsibly. The most dangerous part of the car is the nut behind the wheel.

uDon't drive faster than the flow of the traffic. If you slow down or speed beyond the flow, it is bound to cause irritation. By overtaking and driving rashly, you don't gain anything more than a few minutes.

uMost of those who drive fast are first-generation drivers straight from the village. They think they are driving 100 HP bullock-carts. So be on your guard for sudden turns.
(The author is an automobile expert.)

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