Chaos on the roads

Published : Jan 26, 2007 00:00 IST

A TRAFFIC JAM in Hyderabad on January 6.-G. KRISHNASWAMY

A TRAFFIC JAM in Hyderabad on January 6.-G. KRISHNASWAMY

To ensure free flow of traffic, we need to evolve a combination of strategies, including discouraging citizens from using their own vehicles.

A SEMINAR on the problems of day-to-day traffic management, held in Chennai a few days ago on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the city police, provides the meat for this fortnight's column. I have always been passionate about the subject. This is the mildest statement I can make because I am enraged by what I see on our roads day in and day out. I often pat myself on the back that I have not yet descended to the level of getting out of my car and physically dealing with an erring motorist. This is the intensity of my feelings on the state of indiscipline that dominates the scene. Instead of showing signs of improvement - with all the festivity that marks the so-called `traffic safety week' held as a ritual every other day in all our metros - the situation is deteriorating by the hour. Impressive statistics are dished out by those who manage the country's economy to show how our automobile industry is growing by leaps and bounds. What is not said is how our existing infrastructure is going to cope with this frightening phenomenon.

I am not for a moment suggesting a Procrustean solution that would seek a cut in the production of cars and two-whe elers. That would be a retrograde measure bound to invite derision. The crux of the matter is whether we can evolve a strategy that will ensure free flow of traffic on our main thoroughfares without asking the users to make too much of a sacrifice. Any drastic measures, however much they are needed, are bound to provoke public protests that would exacerbate the chaos that we face.

We are undoubtedly in the midst of a first-class crisis. We will realise its dimensions in a few years from now when traffic comes to a grinding halt in the principal cities. Delhi is somewhat better placed than others because of its many broad roads. Even this advantage is being eroded because of the mind-boggling number of vehicles that are added there each day through fresh registrations. The current economic boom is bound to enlarge vehicle ownership all over the country, particularly because public transport remains unsatisfactory. I would like to know whether the Delhi Metro, although it only partially covers the commuting population, has made any difference at all to the number of vehicles on the road. I do not think it has.

What about pushing up the disincentives to using one's own automobile in preference to public transport? London has tried a harsh 8 congestion charge for motoring through some areas such as Central London. The impact has been somewhat measurable if not spectacular. Car pools are encouraged in some cities. They again bring only marginal relief because of the impracticality of forging stable and enduring pools that can be shared by two or more persons. An incentive to carry another person along with you is permission to use the fast track known as the High Occupancy Vehicle lane, which carries you to your destination much faster than other more crowded, slow-moving lanes. Even this has not been all that effective. Wisdom demands a combination of strategies, including building additional infrastructure and discouraging citizens from using their own vehicles. I would opt for the latter as there are limits to expanding the road network.

What I am most appalled about is the never-diminishing indiscipline on the roads, which adds to the woes of the traffic policeman Adhering to a designated lane is uncommon. When I stick to a lane on Chennai's famous Anna Salai, where six-lane traffic has supposedly been in existence for nearly two decades, I am usually a comical figure! When I stop at a signal that has just turned red, I am equally comical. There are two sets of conduct, one when a policeman is around and one when he is not. There is a good old saying that honesty is essentially what you do when no one is watching. This does not appeal to the average motorist who may be otherwise honest in his day-to-day life.

This is the tragedy of our roads. Accidents at intersections are usually the result of such callousness and utter disregard for the safety of others who share the road. Rightly, therefore, in India the fatality rate in road accidents is one of the highest in the world.

How does one instil discipline among those who drive automobiles in India? The analogy to tackling conventional crime is not inappropriate. In spite of all the cynicism about penalties working as deterrence, allowing traffic violations to go unpunished or imposing only a nominal fine on the offender is the greatest incentive to rash driving. As one of the police officers at the seminar said, for every violation the fine in India is the pittance of Rs.200! If not for any other reason, at least to take care of inflation, we need to raise penalties. This is, however, only of limited utility because many who own vehicles can easily muster up the fine. What will make an impact is a provision in the Motor Vehicles Act prescribing a period of compulsory attendance at a traffic safety school run by the police or by a non-governmental organisation. Staying away from one's professional commitments for a whole week would involve loss of wages, which can be the only deterrent. This works very well in several countries. Why not in India? I am absolutely certain nothing else will operate to check misconduct on Indian roads.

It is not only the blatant violation of traffic rules that leads to accidents. It is also the sheer incompetence of our drivers, who obtain a driving licence without ever appearing for a test or medical examination. It is widely known that licences are available for a price at all our Regional Transport Offices. One does not have to prove one's driving ability or medical fitness. I remember sharing a platform sometime ago with a Union Minister when the latter bemoaned the evil. He did not, however, say what he was going to do about this. Can there be anything more pathetic? Our inability to alter a sick system would shock any observer. I recently read a report about one of our city police forces randomly stopping drivers and subjecting them to a basic eye check. I thought this was a novel idea and could help to take off the road at least a few with acute visual defects. It can further introduce an element of deterrence to those who certify a driving licence applicant's eyesight for a price. I see no reason why other forces cannot copy this practice.

Above all these ills of the system, I am most exercised about the utter neglect of the needs of the pedestrian. In the eyes of the police, he is a subhuman species who cannot complain. The traffic police are concerned only about the need to keep the traffic flowing without it coming to a dead halt. All else is irrelevant. One cannot take exception to this attitude in the context of the alarming growth in the volume of traffic on our roads. Any special attention to pedestrians, such as increasing the number of designated points (zebra crossings) where they can cross a road, would further slow down traffic flow. But then, can this be a justification to throw pedestrians to the mercy of speeding vehicles? Definitely not! I do not know when we will have pedestrian-friendly traffic police who will not mind an arterial road getting clogged only because they have permitted more crossings on foot. We talk so much about improving the conditions of the poor. Is this not one way of making their lives less forbidding?

Another major problem for road users is inadequate parking space. While there are regulations that stipulate how much parking space should be provided at new commercial centres and apartment blocks, this has not reduced the gravity of the situation. Multilevel parking lots are also only of limited utility, besides being expensive. The issue once again reduces itself to discouraging car owners from driving to shopping complexes and places of entertainment, something that is intertwined with raising the quality of public transport.

Finally, lax enforcement of traffic regulations is often attributed to corrupt policemen. The charge is difficult to rebut. Police supervisors have a major role in putting down this evil with a firm hand, provided they themselves are clean. Also, the supervisor's presence on roads, overseeing traffic constables at work, will have a salutary effect. Unfortunately, I see fewer and fewer senior officers on the streets, which only encourages uninhibited corruption.

Standards of policing vary from city to city. The Chennai Police have given a reasonable account of themselves. Traffic enforcement is one of their strong points. They compare favourably with many of their counterparts elsewhere in the country. I would, however, set much higher standards of evaluation for them before I can say they are the best in the country. What I am happiest about is that they have a commissioner who is not only a woman (for the first time in the history of the force) but one who has a splendid reputation for professionalism and personal integrity. I hope she will break new ground in the area, which will satisfy Chennaites and make them feel they have a friendly and efficient police force.

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