India has been witnessing rapid urbanisation over the years. With a steady rise in its population, motor vehicle numbers are also witnessing a corresponding increase. While we have millions of vehicles, not-so-surprisingly, we also account for one of the highest levels of road accidents annually.
To place into perspective, let us consider this. When a virus results in a pandemic and leads to the death of thousands worldwide, we panic and take all preventive measures possible, including changes which earlier might have seemed unfeasible. On the flip side, when we have another problem resulting in the death of millions of people for years on end, we do not make it a political priority or act upon it. Rather, we choose to be ignorant and lay the blame on individuals and not the authorities who otherwise are supposedly ‘custodians’ of the ordinary population.
Where lies the problem?
While there are several reasons for the high road fatality rates in India–including substandard infrastructure, poor traffic management, often appalling road conditions and driver negligence–a major reason is also the lack of adequate driving etiquette and safe driving literature available for the masses. When an individual goes to apply for their driving license in India, he or she is expected to know all the skills and rules on his own, as if these are innate characteristics that our minds are pre-wired with.
I decided to try and unearth what was available online. And I came across a government endorsed app that begins with no curriculum but rather multiple choice questions. Basically, you are expected to figure out the correct answer by way of trial and error and this is exactly how we take to driving on public roads — through some trial and many errors.
Quite naturally, we produce millions of young drivers who are unfortunately not trained — thanks to the self-tutoring and parental guidance, instead of formal training. It may be argued that even self-tutored and parent-tutored drivers can drive on roads. Well, they certainly can. The argument is valid. However, its limitations are many and most importantly, a self-taught approach cannot meet standardisation criteria.
In much the same way as parents send their children to school for a standardised education governed by education boards; likewise, a standardised driving course is necessary in the interests of all road users. For example, it may seem normal for one road user (taught by a parent perhaps) to quickly switch between low and high beam as a way of ‘warning’ other road users, while for the civilised, it is considered just plain road rage.
A lack of driving literature casts a wide ripple effect. It results in poor driving etiquette and while many are well versed with basic driving skills and elementary road signage use, most simply tend to follow a ‘survival of the fittest’ outlook when it comes to maneuvering on our hazardous roads. At first glance, it may seem trivial to follow road etiquette but in reality, it bodes well for the greater good. Driving really is more than simply knowing how to hold the wheel and change gears.
Monkey sees and monkey does
In India particularly, we have been quick in adopting all things western — from food and clothing to even education and entertainment. Yet, we conveniently ignore the niceties of road usage that is often the mainstay in western nations. Why is it that when we are on the road, we seem to adopt a ‘me first’ attitude? Why do we seem to think that making that brash overtaking maneuver is going to seem macho? Even worse, why is endless honking considered part and parcel of effective driving?
The prime minister had declared earlier in March that if the ensuing 21 days were not strictly observed as lockdown, we will be backtracking our steps by 21 years. This is a fitting analogy for our prevailing road conditions. We have automobiles engineered for use on German autobahns that can comfortably cruise at over 200 km/hr. Yet the bulk of our roads, and especially in the eastern part of the country, are reminiscent of the early 20th century. The irony is somewhat reinforced when taking into account the vehicle choices of Indian heads of state; the prime minister and president are both ferried in German cars.
Traffic fatalities and their economic impact
According to the World Health Organization, over 1.3 million lives are lost due to road crashes annually. Of this stratospheric number, over 50 percent of fatalities are of vulnerable road users — pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. It is suggested that road traffic injuries are now the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5–29 years and an estimated 93 percent occur in low and middle-income countries.
Road tragedies also result in huge economic losses for nations. India alone loses the equivalent of INR4 lakh crore annually to road tragedies. This amount stands huge, especially when contrasted against the total Ministry of Road Transport and Highways budget allocation for this fiscal year that stood at INR91,823 crore.
In the Asia-Pacific region, one person is killed on the road every 40 seconds, meaning 2000 lives a day or 15,000 lives a week. These statistics and losses in terms of value proves how deep rooted the problem is. This is before factoring in the emotional losses for families and friends of victims; these cannot be quantified.
The lackadaisical approach prevails
The zebra crossing is treated merely as a rangoli painted on the road for beautification; headlights are used in the high-beam setting as if to celebrate diwali on the road while we wait for Lord Rama’s (or perhaps Yama’s) arrival. We also seem to possess a great sense of love for off-road driving, a glimpse of which is witnessed near traffic signals. Bikers steer off the road and start moving ahead, overtaking others in the queue in a bizarre display of their ability to navigate over dividers and foot paths.
And then there are otherwise perfectly sensible people, who take it upon themselves to cast their sensibilities further by blaring their horns immediately after the signal turns green. These are but common scenarios on Indian roads and for the most part, we have come to accept it as ‘normal’.
This is exactly where we need to shake ourselves out of our reverie and lay importance on driving etiquette. This attribute teaches us the right usage of various vehicle features and also the conduct we are expected to display on the road. It begins with showing consideration for other road users, especially so for the less fortunate who are often labouriously pushing a hand cart or pedalling a rickshaw. Give way to them – the two seconds lost are not going to mean anything in the grander scheme of things.
Sense and sensibilities
All of these problems exist and they can be changed – some overnight and others, gradually. It will take a multi-dimensional approach, which will include an upgrade in the licensing system to make it more advanced, mass awareness drives will have to be initiated and the inclusion of driver training in high school curriculum must be considered. What I always maintain is this – there is much time dedicated in school syllabi towards learning trigonometry and algebra. At last count, I came across two people who mentioned needing it in their day to day lives. That’s probably two people from an average class size of 30-40 people.
On the other hand, 100 percent of everyone I know or have spoken to is a road user but not one, and I repeat, not one has ever received any formal instruction on how to drive responsibly. What is even more amusing is the fact that I am often told that why is formal training necessary when one has been driving for 30 odd years and that the experience gathered is ‘immense’. To this latter subset, I often ask one question, “what is a blind spot in a rear-view mirror?” I do so while faking absolute ignorance. More often than not, I usually draw a blank stare as if to say, “hey wisecrack, go along and find something worthwhile to do.”
A multi-pronged approach is required for imparting driving etiquette lessons to new drivers as well as veterans. The formula is simple – proper driving etiquette is synonymous with discipline and safety. It is therefore imperative that we identify and understand this blatant disregard for traffic sense and start including safe driving tutorials in school curriculum.
I must reiterate that Pythagoras’ theorem sure made for interesting puzzles but in the actual world, there is little use for it especially when there is space age computing available at the swipe of a screen. But until autonomous vehicles with ‘pre-programmed’ driving etiquette do not become commonplace, we may have to reinterpret the relevance of even Archimedes’ principle in our lives. Perhaps it is time for our very own eureka moment!