Apologies in advance as this may come as a bit of a rant.
After spending over a year in the UK, I am back in India. I had a familiar feeling of dread, outright anger, and a twinge of gut-wrenching despair as I got out of Mumbai’s International airport and into a car to take me home. People just do not know how to drive in this country. Forget simple courtesies like letting oncoming traffic through or using the horn sparingly. Most drivers on Mumbai’s roads don’t follow a lane, jump signals consistently, and don’t stop for pedestrians crossing roads. Driving on the highway sees many use the hard shoulder to overtake slow moving traffic, sees extremely slow moving traffic block all the lanes, and also sees drivers jack-knifing between trucks at horribly unsafe speeds.
If I’m being completely honest, there is a sort of freedom where one can do anything on India’s roads and get away with it. However, this comes at a great cost. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways revealed last year that over 500,000 accidents take place, of which 146,133 were fatal. That means that there were 400 people dying every day on India’s roads and highways!
There are more than a few reasons for this morbid statistic. Factors include poor road infrastructure and planning, some really unsafe vehicles, a general lack of enforcement, and almost no education regarding driving. Recently the government has significantly increased the penalties for various traffic violations, some fines increasing by 1000%. While this may help to curb some instances of overzealous driving on public roads, it does not help with the underlying problem.
A large amount of blame was placed on the manufacturers. Until 2014, car makers took the brunt of the blame for the number of fatalities, with good reason. Most cars did not offer airbags and ABS, while many cars failed (and continue to fail) basic crash tests. While consumers are slowly gaining awareness about car safety, there has been some progress in this area. However, the rickshaw is still a widely used conveyance of mass transport. It is probably the least safe vehicle operating on roads. Meant to combine the frugality and flexibility of a two-wheeler with the passenger capacity of a four-wheeler, these three-wheeled menaces clog roads and are utterly unsafe driving at anything above 20mph (32kmph).
Corrupt road contractors and neglectful politicians have resulted in less than decent roads all over the country. The situation has marginally improved but the sheer number of vehicles on the road combined with inadequate maintenance means that roads are still not up to scratch. Cars and bikes swerve to avoid sudden dips and cracks in the road and lead to accidents. Inadequate lighting in some areas is another issue that causes traffic to slow down unnecessarily and cause accidents. Beyond that, water-logging, traffic signals malfunctioning, and construction without planning or forethought are all major problems that lead to an increase in traffic snarls and accidents.
Even with all these problems, the core of India’s driving issue lies with training and the procurement of licenses. I remember going for my driving test in 2011, I was asked to drive 400m in a straight line on an empty stretch of road before I was given my license. A woman who was also giving her test on the same day bumped into two parked cars and stalled the engine three times, and was handed her license as well. It just goes to show the calibre of people driving on these roads.
At driving schools, they teach people how to use their cars, not the correct way to turn into traffic, to wait for pedestrians, to enter and exit a roundabout, or even to patiently wait at a signal without honking. The use of hazard lights in tunnels is just plain wrong, using the indicators when required, and using the high beam and fog lamps in conditions that warrant it; these are the sort of things they should be teaching. No one talks about the usage of child seats, DIY engine checks, or even simple tyre checks.
A report by Automotive Tyre Manufacturers Association (ATMA) and Indian Tyre Technical Advisory Committee (ITTAC) reveals that 40% of accidents that took place on the Yamuna Expressway (regarded as one of the best highways in the country) are due to tyre bursting. Over-speeding on lesser rated tyres, incorrect tyre pressures, and using different types of tyres on one vehicle are the cause of this.
There is a simple yet burdensome way to fix this. Late last year, the current government issued a very sudden recall of certain types of currency in the country. This led to months of instability and created havoc economically. While it may take longer to know if there have been any significant gains due to the demonetisation, a similar notice could help with this issue as well. The government should send out a notice saying, “By 2020, all current driving licenses will expire. New driving licenses will be issued after a passing a proper theory and practical driving test (similar to the ones held in Japan or the UK).” This will ensure that people who do use roads will know how to use them correctly.