Saturday, May 02, 2009

Road discipline - A dreamer's ideas

I dont know the exact facts but India is probably the home to the largest percentage of traffic accidents in the world. Sample this, just in one day, three people - all aged between 19 and 30, very young by any standards - died in separate accidents across Chennai.

Now, I have been a rash driver myself in my college days, throwing caution to the winds, speeding through red lights, changing lanes erratically all these used to be a part of my 'normal' driving. By default everyone in India has been getting their license by a very flimsy system of testing by the Regional Transport Office and its officers. So the general public cannot be really faulted for not knowing traffic rules or not respecting fellow road occupants. But the government, well that is a different issue.

Till I entered America, I didn't know a lot of things about traffic management, the host of traffic rules and signs that were available, not even the methods of safe driving. When I returned to homeland after a year of driving around in the USA, I saw the various traffic signs more acutely than they ever did before. In fact I didnt even realise before that they existed. So poor is the traffic education available and given to the people of our country. And this along with bad enforcement, more than bad roads or any other excuse given by the traffic police, is the main reason behind the hundreds of deaths everyday on our roads.

I wont get into why the men in charge of traffic are so apathetic, that will be too tedious and common a topic and that is not what I want to discuss in this article. Rather, I want to highlight the ways in which I think good traffic sense can be inculcated in the drivers that drive on the roads today

It is not easy to teach an old dog new tricks, and so expecting the millions that drive on the roads to learn all the rules and abide by them overnight is impossible. After a few conversations with the men regulating rules on the roads, I figured out that the department does not really believe it can make a change. So much is the chaos that rules the roads, that they feel that the challenge ahead is like trying to make a shoal of fish swim in a straight line. The department needs to believe in itself that they can enforce a traffic rule and make sure that a majority of the motorists follow that, barring which they will be punished suitably. For which I have come up with a fancy idea.

The traffic department should first come out with a statement that over a period of, say the next one year, it will be implementing various rules stage-wise and clear and mass advertisement will be done on the upcoming implementation along with detailsl of the punishment in case of failure to follow the rules. (This advertising can be done via posters, advertisements in the various media forms - Radio, TV, Cinema theatres etc.) The plan should be laid out beforehand and a book that will include the plan and all these rules should be published and made available at many locations around the city for a nominal price. Policemen should be thoroughly trained in these rules and they should realise that unless they follow the rules (and this hardly happens in the present scenario), we cannot expect the public to follow them. Some of the aspects of the plan can be as follows:

Rear view mirrors and turn indicators
The department could start off by implementing a small but vital rule and making sure that an entire city follows it. For eg, say neccesitating 'proper rear view mirrors in the correct position' in every vehicle. I stress upon 'proper' and 'correct position' here, as I have seen many large vehicles like lorries or buses have tiny mirrors that offer almost no visibility, and many cars run around with their mirrors folded so that they could squeeze into small gaps without damaging them. Usage of these mirrors and good education on the practice of checking the blind spot while changing lanes will go a long way in avoiding accidents. 

Turn indicators are also a necessity that come in handy when changing lanes and without these, people tend to swerve across lanes mindless of the motorists behind. Traffic Police should bring in the rule that every vehicle should have indicators in 'working' condition and they should be used extensively. (Guess what the auto wallahs would have to say to this!)

Lane discipline
What are traffic lanes? Many on the roads today, do not understand the concept of lanes and more often than not, consider the road as one wide stretch of land ahead, where they can sweve about however they please without bothering about the people behind him. Such indisciplined driving not only leads to accidents but also to irritation leading to road rages. The first step to solve this problem could be to clearly paint lane lines on roads. One traffic marking that I fail to understand in India is that the line dividing the road into two sides of traffic flowing in opposite directions and the line dividing the same of a road into different lanes, can be of the same colour. This is stated in this Government of India website where it says that both these lines can be of white colour. This creates quite a bit of confusion among motorists and thereby, these two lines should be different colours, ideally, the line dividing the road, yellow, and the line dividing both sides of the road into lanes, white.

Once these markings are clearly done, animated films showing the technique of switching on indicators, looking over shoulder (I do that even when riding a bike in India and it is very helpful), and moving left or right, will have to be screened in the media for a protracted period of time. Results will take time coming, but they will surely come in.

Mobile cops
The practice of positioning cops stationary in cars and bikes in various places around the city and booking offenders is good, but not enough. If one has to enforce rules that are significant as far as preventing accidents on the move are concerned, then cops have to move around the city in their vehicles. Bikes are a better bet in our crowded roads and sirens and police lights (Red and Blud) should be effectively used while pursuing and punishing offenders. This method of policing would be very effective while enforcing rules like the one mentioned in the previous point.

Traffic signboards
These go a long way in directing traffic and hence, should be placed prominently at all places. Though we do currently have a host of traffic signboards at all places, the size of these could be increased and rules that prosecute people who stick posters on these signboards should be strictly enforced. Signs for Stop, Pedestrian crossings, Speed limits, Speed breakers, hospital and school zones, no horn/no parking zones, 'one-way' road signs etc. should be placed in clearly visible locations and violation of these should attract considerable penalties that would discourage the motorist from committing the offence one more time. (Once I was caught speeding in America at 4 am when there was absolutely no traffic on the highway, but still shelled out a whopping $140 as fine. That was the last time I stepped above the speed limit)

If the traffic department manages to achieve even some of these points over a period of a year, it will have more confidence to move forward even more to slowly implement other forms and methods of traffic control. It would be impossible, and in fact foolish, to think that traffic discipline in India could equal that present in many western nations, our population is enough to lay off any such idea. But if the people in charge of traffic control can put their foot down and tell the citizens that they want to bring more control and discipline on the roads and that no nonsense will be tolerated, we drivers can surely be taught good lessons in driving and the roads can be a lot safer place in our country