Highway low

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January 13th, 2010 Rrishi Raote

A week or two ago I had the misfortune to be driving home from deepest Gurgaon to Delhi near midnight, through a thick fog, on the national highway. This national highway, unlike most other NHs in India, is a Herculean carpet of Tarmac and concrete laid across the landscape. Riding it at speed is like surfing the spine of a dinosaur, as one rise and falls on the flyovers and flat stretches.

It’s monstrous in another way, too: its scale appears to addle the minds of drivers, who react to its inhuman size by trying to shrink it. This they do by driving very fast and swinging between the lanes as if there weren’t any. They also maintain, on this interstate highway, the driving behaviour typical of a crowded city street, sliding past each other with a few inches to spare, shouldering one another aside and tailgating freely.

On that foggy night when I was driving home, it was business as usual on the highway. Through an obstacle course of inadequately lit articulated trucks the faster two- and four-wheelers swerved at 100 kmh with, incongruously, their hazard lights flashing through the murk. It was pure torture. Impossible to maintain a steady, sane speed in one’s chosen lane. Next time I will take the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road at night, even if it is longer, slower and much, much narrower.

To generalise: there are basic problems with what roads we do have and the way we use them. One is that the road system in Delhi is not planned as a network, holistically, which means that there will always be inefficiencies and points of accumulation. Another is that what roads do exist are not really designed at all: more often than not they are just flat stretches with dotted lines drawn down the middle. A third is that what locations and services a road feeds are usually not integrated sensibly with the road and its traffic flow: think of stupidly sited entry and exit points, and large buildings opening onto tiny streets. A fourth, that traffic flow is not well understood, which makes every rush hour many times worse than it ought to be. Fifth, and really this is the worst problem of all: our drivers don’t respect any rules — of etiquette, law or common sense. The only rule that matters is pehle main.

Three are planning failures, the fourth implicates the traffic police, and of the fifth we citizen drivers are guilty.

Sadly, the easiest and surest solution that occurs is stern enforcement: cameras, fines, imprisonment and more (and better, and less corrupt) cops. In an unfair society like ours, tracking offences is a job best left to status-neutral technology. When your license plate or individual car radio ID tag (let’s say) is caught by camera or sensor while you’re doing something wrong on the road, that’s it, no argument, you face the applicable penalty. All this is an anti-humanistic solution, which infantilises us citizens. But until we migrate at last to public transport (peace of mind!) we’re ready to be treated as juvenile delinquents.

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9 Responses to “Highway low”

  1. narendra aggarwal Says:

    Rrishi,

    Actually road was designed for the trucks and cars to be parked and the hawkers to sell their goods and the shops to keep their stuff in the daytime for the buying public. It is also meant for the cows and the budding cricketers. It is dangerous to use the road for driving vehicles.

    The highways are another matter, of course, I understand your concerns.

    If I am good at driving cars in a video game(seen any cops in a video game?) why cant I do it here in Gurgaon? Life imitating art!

    Better police-wallahs, are you talking of day zero at IIM, for police recruitment?

  2. Rrishi Says:

    Rajesh Kumar: This is a striking statement: “Since Air of Delhi kept devil inside it ,even a simple man if inhale it,he will forget about his past.” I will remember it!

    As to “running out of time” being the reason for everyone being in a hurry — I’m not so sure. Does one cut a queue just because one is pressed for time? I work plenty hard, so it seems to me, but even I can see that my day is full of optimisable time. Mostly the reasons are to be found in ill-designed work systems. Look at your own day and see if this doesn’t hold true.

    The key, in my opinion, is not time but your final statement: there is no one to check.

    Pucca Ghati: Boss (or Sahiba), I am half ghati myself and I totally understand your anger.

  3. Rajesh Kumar Says:

    Rule and Laws are made of safety.But they are become source of Income.Breach the rules become our habit.We are stubborn.Rather than accepting the mistakes which we did,we put blame on others.Most of the things we do,because we saw others to do the same.If some is trying to cross the road at red signal or last moment of yellow signal,We try to do the same.Mainly,this curiosity I found in today youths.Most of them used to to show others.They are not putting their life into danger but others too.It is because of freedom that their parents have provide to them. Most of students are away from home and surely they have no fear at all.Since Air of Delhi kept devil inside it ,even a simple man if inhale it,he will forget about his past.
    Moreover,it’s today necessity to teach our child riding of bike,cars etc.But It’s better if they use it after crossing age 16nth.
    In today life,everyone is running out of time.So they try to save the time by taking wrong turns and crossing red signal if their is no one to check it.

  4. Pucca Ghati Says:

    Delhi is a North Indian City period . Dynamic North Indians will always disobey rules and use their Hindi uncles to bend them . Get non-North Indian Policemen and wip the population regularly for a few decades - whip NOT fine - you will get some NOT too much discipline once the DNA adapts over a few generations .

  5. Rrishi Says:

    Koshy: You’re right — it’s very difficult to advocate tighter controls in India because inevitably that means harassment, or more victims of imperfect laws (laws are always imperfect) and/or stupid enforcement. I dread being caught in such a situation, and I know one or two people who have been that unlucky.

    And there is the example of the German (if I remember right) small town which did away with traffic-control signage, speed limits, speed-breakers, stop signs etc., altogether. The result was that drivers had to look for themselves, not just follow the marked rules. Violations and accidents nosedived; so citizens, on wheels and on feet, were much safer than they had been before.

    Yes, but that presupposes /some/ social sanction for non-lethal misconduct on the road. It’s not the case here. Who feels guilty even about invading another driver’s “personal” space? Perhaps that’s why other road users react with extreme violence when an accident does happen — usually against the driver of the vehicle that did the damage, whether or not it was his/her fault. No censure for a million minor offences adds up to an unbalanced, vicious reaction for something that looks like a major offence. Straw that broke camel’s back and all that — it’s a very general story, applicable to more than just Delhi traffic.

    So I agree wholeheartedly with you, yet I can’t think of a fast-acting solution to the constant threat of violence that is our public sphere that does /not/ involve imposing some sort of painful consequence. What else to do? Hold better driving classes? Have an engine immobiliser that shuts down your car for, say, 5 minutes after an offence? (But how on earth would one administer such things?) Etc.

  6. koshy Says:

    You talk about ’stern enforcement’ of law as the easiest and surest solution for road discipline. However the administration of law can be a nightmare for responsible drivers. For instance, if the traffic offender ends up dead, he gets declared as the victim even if the other driver takes all reasonable steps to avert the accident. The fact that there is evidence for all to see that he has violated the traffic rule (say for instance taking the wrong side of the turning and ramming into oncoming traffic) gets brushed aside by the police who will book the surviving driver as the accused under Sec.304A for unintended manslaughter saying it is ’standard procedure’. The ‘accused’ has to find 2 sureties each for himself and his car and also be prepared for several years of legal headache.

  7. Rrishi Says:

    Sumit: yes, but would you wish capital status on any other Indian city that you like? I think it’s the kiss of death in some respects, certainly for a large city.

    SKS: Nothing worth remembering, clearly. :^)

  8. SKS Says:

    What did you do that evening that made you forget whether it was a week ago or two?

  9. Sumit Says:

    With due respect to all Delhiites, I think the place does not deserve to be called the capital of India.

    Roads are constructed but we don’t want to follow the rules.People driving Toyota\BMW\Mercedes but don’t know what’s the meaning of a ‘lane’.
    I would say it’s not ‘pehle main’ attitude but rather ‘me and only me’ attitude which has made this city the crime capital of India.

    It’s not ‘high time’ but its ‘about time’ that the citizen in capital of my country learn to behave anywhere and everywhere.
    Thanks to Mr. P. Chidambaram to point that out to the fellow beings inhabitating this ‘Dil walon’ ki Delhi.

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