One hears the MEA spokesperson mention ‘maximum engagement’ so often these days… but then so does the person on TV debating on the social media interactions, or the activist shouting hoarse for women’s safety, or even the hordes of MBAs from big and small institutes when they discuss market intervention or product projection. But all these forms can be interesting, productive, funny, hilarious, and meaningless… but they can never be chilling. The only time ‘maximum engagement’ freezes the nerves is when it is talking of the ‘damaged state of two colliding vehicles at the point of maximum intrusion’. In short, it is mentioning an accident.
Yes, highways are the places where devastating accidents take place… but city roads are not far from them either. It is for this reason that newspapers are full of terms like crash reconstruction, crash scene, crash site, debris, direct damage, hot shock, scrape, scratch, point of impact, scuff marks, skid marks, and fatalities. These terms have entered our psyches so much that they have probably stopped having an impact that triggers the self-correcting mechanisms within us. And so we happily keep adding figures to the accidents statistics but keep being irresponsible on and off the road.
We love imagining we are like our Bollywood heroes who swerve and weave our way through the traffic cleanly and who even get applauded for this feat… or sometimes get a loving smooch from the starry-eyed heroine. This is never the case in real life because here, unlike in the movie, everybody is out to prove that he is a hero. So we have truck drivers driving like Rajesh Khanna in ‘Dushman’, lovers imitating Feroze Khan in ‘Safar’, and even the elderly swinging their cars from one end to the other to look like Shah Rukh in a great mood! This never pays… and so the traffic statistician simply keeps adding numbers to his charts and the public laments the loss of their dear ones.
‘Filmi stunts don’t ever lead to any good,’ said Specky, my wife, as she read the lines that I was writing.
I said, ‘But we don’t seem to be learning. The stats are getting worse with every passing year.’
We agreed that each of us who puts his life as well as the lives of others in such a grave danger was no less than the Haryana Khaps who seem to be driving at break-neck speed and bent upon ruining the social fabric of the nation. ‘Like these Khaps,’ said Specky, ‘the errant drivers too need the cane. I don’t think we are programmed to learn through gentle voiced instructions or passive manuals or the sporadic ad in the daily. We need consistent and powerful jolts.’
I smiled and replied, ‘I’d better believe you because it is a teacher speaking.’
Well, the definition of ‘jolts’ can differ from one to the other person, but what is important is that we have not been focused on learning to remain safe on the roads. So I decided to go out and ask a few random people what they thought. I asked, ‘Why do you think accidents take place?’
The answers ranged from the obvious to the ridiculous. One pointed out that ‘the traffic lights are non-functional here and have been in this state of slumber since my childhood’… another asked, ‘do you really see the white lines of a zebra crossing anywhere here?’ and when I said ‘No, I don’t,’ he replied, ‘I have never seen them in the past decade or so.’ Yes, others did include the zesty youth, the helmet-less man-in-a-hurry, the nervous lady driver, the arrogant ‘dabba’ (the auto-rickshaw converted into a goods carrier) driver, the perpetually drunk boor driving a bus, and the driver who wanted to drive at a speed that was less than the speed of an old man crossing the road! Of course, there were yet others who talked about the corrupt traffic cop, the unpredictable bullock-carts, the even more unpredictable rickshaws, the drivers driving in the wrong direction, the congenital traffic rules violators, the drivers who didn’t realise that their vehicle was reversing menacingly on a slope, given-a-bribe-and-got-driving-licence drivers, and the brats who were ready to pay but never ready to drive right.
Well, this was a rather colourful picture that my interactions with the people on the road resulted in. However, this failed to shock me. I have seen almost each of these variants in my decades on the road and I know that besides them there are the sleep-deprived nodding drivers, the ones driving with a mobile in one hand, those who are more interested in eating with one hand, and the music lovers who never seem to hear the honk of someone trying to save his life!
Yes, the Indian road is a virtual circus of this motley crowd… and despite all the Gods stuck on the dashboards and all the tons of flowers bought for them, accidents are a reality. Yes, accidents still happen even despite our drivers diligently giving a fifty paise coin every Saturday to every vagabond carrying a black stone immersed in mustard oil who approaches him on a crossing. Yes, accidents happen despite vociferous back seat drivers in Banarasi or Kancheevaram saris. Yes, accidents happen despite lakhs of rupees going in fines and the crores of rupees going as bribes. Accidents are as real as the pot-holed roads of India!
Now, if you’ve read this post so far, you are probably interested in knowing how all these potential hazards are reduced. I mean, there are solutions for every problem, but we just need to list them all out properly… communicate… and then implement them.
I asked Specky the best way road safety can be ensured. She answered without batting an eyelid, ‘Ask people to stop rolling down the window of their car to fling out a reluctant empty packet of wafers… this desperately directionless packet can go and cling to the windshield of the vehicle behind his, making him brake suddenly or even accelerate suddenly… leading to an accident that resembles the attack of a serial killer!’
Well the, based on my research these past years, I recommend the following steps to help with road safety in India:
- Lots of us know that we need to obey rules, wear safety belts, use helmets on two-wheelers, keep speed in check, read caution signs, respect the pedestrians, allow the old and the children to cross the road… but the thing is most of the hazardous drivers keep having temporary bouts of forgetfulness. At least this is what they tell the cops when they are caught and told of their crime… so let each violator stand at a decided crossing for a week and read out all safety rules into a public address system. This will be besides the fine that is imposed on him for his crime or violation, of course.
- Insist that the municipalities get the footpath kerbs painted four times a year in the internationally recognised white and black or the yellow and black. Please ask them not to consult a fashion designer to recommend colour schemes that may make the footpath resemble a ramp for models but getting invisible when it is dark or misty.
- Inform the PWD with folded hands that all these years the traffic police has been fining poor drivers when they crossed an imaginary stop-line… and that the hapless public does deserve a real line, a real zebra crossing, and real dividers and lane demarcations that are painted before they fade away into nothingness again.
- The PWD must again be requested to make sure that the zebra crossing leads to an opening in the over-zealous high divider barriers… or pedestrians will simply have to take long detours weaving in and out of the traffic. You know how chaotic this can become.
- The government does a great job when I see a wonderful road safety ad in the papers or a short film on the television or the big screen… but can someone please tell the producers and the creative team to turn them all into a language that everyone understands? Imagine a hovel in slum full of interested viewers watching Priyanka Chopra blabber on and on about road safety and all that the old lady took away was, ‘She was wearing a nice jhumka!’ Arrey bhai, let your ads lagao a thumka in Hindi or a regional language please.
- Make our traffic force bribe-sensitive! Why can’t the officers call all the cops in for a ‘coffee with the DCP’ and address them each in person and tell them of the evils of accepting bribes and letting go the violators on the roads to drive on? After all, the next person they hit and run might be a close relative of one of these errant cops, hai na?
- Hand a broom to every traffic cop… to use it to sweep each rickshaw, thela, cycle, car, matador, two-wheeler, truck, and everything else on wheels inching ahead, back behind the stop line. This ‘inching ahead’ is a nuisance as it leads to the start of a road rage that bursts unpredictably, and so drivers must be forced to carry on their paan-munching this side of the stop-line. A better way, of course, is to start hauling these erring drivers for a hefty fine… and I’m sure the next time they will go on and help the PWD paint a brighter and sharper stop-line.
- Let there be a contest between technology and the traffic cops. What I mean is that the traffic cops must go around fining each violation by simply giving a fine information print-out with the violation mentioned. This information needs to be transmitted directly to a central server through their hand-held device. Their competitor will be a camera on a drone or placed at a vantage spot, to transmit its assessment of the number of violations. Obviously, the numbers that the drone transmits must match the number of violators caught and fined by the cops. All I am trying to say is that we have trusted the cops for long now… let them match their honesty against technology now. The drivers who are issued these violation tickets will need to pay online or report to the Traffic Adalat.
- Ask bloggers to write more frequently on traffic violators and the evils it leads to. Announce better prizes… and make sure that even in this contest at least one of the first prize winner is someone who has written in Hindi or a regional language. After all, the violators are not all who read English!
- The NSDC or the Nissan Safety Driving Forum must consider appointing one blogger in each State as the Road Safety Ambassador and who must become a social media activist who not only blogs about road safety but also tweets, updates on Facebook, Instagram, and any other platform that deserves a mention.
- High pitched bosses in the office are just as bad as the high beams one meets on the roads at night. I obviously cannot change my boss… but the high beam lovers need to be corrected. Why not allow our traffic cops to experiment with gadgets that detect high beams, stand at crucial junctures, and silently allow the gadget to take pictures of erring vehicles. The challans can then be uploaded on the internet. The point that I am trying to make is that people need to be aware of what effect their vehicle is having on others… and drivers must know how adverse their high beam can be on people coming from the opposite direction. A hefty fine will jolt them from their slumber.
- Driving licence is another little card that is liberally distributed in India… come on, I know not many will know the right sequence of using the brakes and clutch in their vehicle. They would not know how to negotiate a traffic island and they would be lost with most of the road signs. All this is because the written as well as the practical tests for a DL are an eye-wash. Let the grant of DL be difficult and not a cake-walk. Let the suspension of your DL be a major loss that can affect a person’s employability. So we need to make the staff at RTOs do their job without political and bureaucratic pressures to speed up the protocol for a chosen few. I know this is difficult, but digitising these offices, making them all come under close-circuit cameras, and a set of vigilant and stern superiors will do the job. Road safety begins from how well you can drive and how well you knew driving when you were granted your DL.
- I think it will be wonderful to have sensors in vehicles that slow them or disallow them to go less than three feet of the next vehicle. Some sort of magnetic implants that act like a magnetic shield that doesn’t any other vehicle to come to a caressing proximity. Yes, there will still be thelas, rickshaws, pedestrians, jay walkers, and cycles… but this will take us one more step towards a risk-free drive.
- It is important to deal very firmly with those who drink and drive, use mobile phones while driving, do not indicate when they intend to take a turn, over-speed, or do not do lane driving… such drivers also need to be fined heavily. However, we need to have tech-solutions for each of these categories. For instance, why not have alcohol sniffers inside a vehicle just above the driver’s seat that disable the ignition when the upper limit is breached? Why not have speed breaking tarmac laying on roads where over-speeding is a hazard? So there is always some technological solution… we just need to be aware and latch on to it at the right time.
- Have you seen how road sign indicating direction or turns appear suddenly and almost at the juncture where the turn was to be made? I see such inconsistencies too often on Delhi roads… and have seen people who are new to the area, suddenly brake or reverse on a high speed stretch or even drive the wrong way. The sign board was either not visible or appeared too late or was too small to be noticed and read from a distance. Well, we need to have the right authorities hauled up for such road improprieties.
- I suggest that those treacherous stretches of our roads where pot-holes appear after the first drizzle, the concerned executive engineer should be made to sit on a chair with his table, of course, and made to complete his office work right next to the pot-holed road until the work is done by the contractor in a way that is correct. I mean, let us make the officials of the PWD more responsible and accountable than sweep away every complaint as an error because of a faulty system of tendering!
- I suggest that we have a small board with quarterly figures of road accidents for that traffic zone displayed on every crossing of the zone. The aim should be to bring these stats down to zero. The traffic force must reward the zone where the accident stats are the least.
Road safety is something that can prompt just about anyone to go on and on and on… which shows how much we are all affected by the ills of hazards on the roads. A large part of the blame for road hazards must, of course, be borne by us all as we are, in one way or the other, responsible for some of the accidents that happen. I mean, it is we who drive on high beam, we convert lane-sense into insane driving, we tend to over-speed, we violate traffic laws, we jump traffic lights, we drive against the traffic to save a few measly yards, we bribe the cops to let us go without a challan, we park in no-parking areas, we… well, the list, as I have said earlier, is endless.
I must admit here that despite the long list of suggested solutions that I have suggested, the only one that works best is when I decide to be safe. Let me give you an example. I was driving and at a crossing the traffic lights suddenly went from green to red. I was anyway driving slowly, and I stopped. There were cars and cabs and buses and trucks zipping from my left and my right and going ahead not caring for the traffic lights because it was early in the morning and there were no cops around to check them.
Then one car came to a halt to my left. Then another slowed and stopped… and within a matter of seconds I could see no one in a rush and violating the laws. It all began with me.
So remember… every good thing begins when you decide to follow the rules and be safe. So before you drive today, look into your rear-view mirror and say: ‘I will follow every traffic rule and be safe.’ This single sentence will get us ‘maximum engagement’ for road safety.
02 December 2014