A car was stopped in the middle of the two-lane highway, along an unlit stretch, its headlights turned off. If not for the meager orange-and-blue light offered by the soft twilight, we wouldn’t have seen that Premier car until too late.
My father, brother, and I thought it had mechanical trouble and couldn’t be moved to the shoulder. But as we drove past it, we noticed the occupants inside. They were eating dinner and enjoying a joke. The smell of sambar was strong.
I would have asked my father to stop his Maruti so I could point out their stupidity, but I was intent on not spoiling the good cheer that filled us that lovely night. The sea breeze had set in and Chennai had a rare respite from the 100-degree heat and seemingly 100 percent humidity. I was on holiday, after all; I visited my family in Mumbai and Chennai for a whirlwind two weeks this April, my first trip back to India since 2001, and my fourth since leaving Chennai for America in 1988.
So I just stared incredulously at them as we drove past, shaking my head. I hope a speeding truck didn’t crush that little Premier.
This incident illustrates the essential problem with Indian city traffic: As the number of cars, motorcycles, mopeds, and now sports utility vehicles multiplies, as the urban middle class sees its collective fortune “shine,” one thing is sorely lacking—a corresponding rise in simple traffic consciousness.
Being able to afford a new set of wheels is one thing. Being able to enjoy driving it—and reach your destination in one piece—requires a collective stepping up of the Indian traffic sense.
As more people snap up Marutis, Mahindras, Opels, Fiats, Premiers, Suzukis, Hero Hondas, Hyundais, Yamahas, Tatas, and Fords, the government is—haphazardly—trying to accommodate this swelling flow of metal, rubber, and gasoline. Road building will never keep up with the exploding traffic, and neither is laying fresh asphalt the best answer, so set those two points aside for a moment.
Consider this point, though: Traffic will always choke the streets of India and to save themselves aggravation—and protect their lives—Indian motorists must: a) learn the rules of the road and b) diligently follow them.
That car stopped in the middle of the highway could have pulled off to the ample shoulder. Or it could have pulled into a rest area a mile or two down the road, a lovely spot with neatly demarcated parking spaces, landscaped grounds, lighted footpaths, and picnic tables under thatch-roof umbrellas.
Such traffic indifference, to borrow a term from my brother, Arun, has only multiplied manifold in the streets of Chennai and Mumbai since the time I left India, it seems.
Pedestrians still jam the streets (maybe because vendors of fruits, flowers, tea, and assorted sweets have taken over the pavements), most side streets are just as narrow and broken down as I remember, and motorists (especially the truck drivers) rudely flash their brights at oncoming traffic. Autorickshas continue to be menaces on the road, weaving this way and that, cutting off everything from the humble bicycle to the mighty Toyota Qualis SUV; motorcycle riders are becoming increasing dangers on the road as they squeeze through pinhole-sized spaces between other vehicles without consideration.
It’s a wonder that road rage isn’t a national epidemic.
The government authorities are taking infant steps to manage traffic flow, but the police either lack the personnel to enforce road rules or simply don’t care or will turn a blind eye in exchange for a bribe.
The authorities are widening the main thoroughfares, albeit spottily and without much planning.
The GST Highway, which begins in India’s southernmost metropolis of Kanyakumari and runs through Chennai, is being widened to four lanes in Chennai’s outskirts. GST becomes Anna Salai inside Chennai; it’s the main commercial thoroughfare through my native city.
But the government isn’t widening Anna Salai, where such action is needed the most. Traffic gets so bogged down along Anna Salai that a clean-shaven man leaving work during rush hour could grow a full beard by the time he reaches home.
My father, Lakshmikantham, says the government widens roads where it won’t do much political harm. To widen a road inside the city, the authorities would have to clear out the stores and shacks. That requires political will, a commodity sorely lacking among the ruling classes; there’s no sense in displacing people if that would cost votes in the next election, you see. Besides, displacing them without offering alternate accommodations would be unfair and illegal. So it’s best to do nothing, best to stick to empty slogans during the campaign season.
As I traveled the city roads (I didn’t dare drive but for about 20 minutes or so on a highway; I let my father handle the wheel, which he does with inordinate skill and the reflexes of a cat on a caffeine kick) I noticed that the flyover has become ubiquitous.
Fifty-five of these road bridges have gone up across Mumbai since 1997, according to my uncle, Murthy. Officials in Chennai are furiously keeping pace with India’s financial capital, having erected a number of flyovers across the city and building new ones near railway crossings in the outskirts.
While these arching roads do help with traffic flow, the harried Indian motorist has myriad road-related dangers to contend with, dangers that stem from discourteous driving.
Some of the newer roads have lanes demarcated in white paint. But why bother? No motorist stays within them. Cutting off the oncoming vehicle is almost expected of you; if you show consideration, allow someone else to pass you, you will never reach your destination.
Though the number of traffic signals has risen, very few motorists stop when it’s red. I was gratified to see most Mumbai motorists obey traffic signals, but most drivers in Chennai pointedly blew past us when we were stopped at a red light—except when a cop was around, whistle, and baton at the ready.
My brother, who spent three years in Texas before returning to Chennai for work, laughingly related this one time he got chastised for obeying the signals. Astride his new Honda motorcycle, he awaited the green light when an autoricksha driver honked angrily from behind, then pulled up beside him and shouted, “What’s the matter? You won’t go when it’s red?” Then he pulled away. The light was still red. My brother saw red. He laughs about it now, but his mirth is tinged with annoyance.
Side streets continue to present a different problem—the ridiculous speed bump.
New highways are world-class, but many of the side streets—lined with open gutters—should be dug up and built anew, for no amount of repair will salvage them.
At the very least, the authorities could flatten the speed bumps. The logic of having them escapes me. The streets are so pot-holed and eroded that no vehicle can do more than crawl. And such shabby streets require speed bumps? Why? To make the hapless motorist ache all over when he gets out of the car?
The growing might of the Indian middle class is evident everywhere. Tall, glass-fronted office buildings abound. New, shiny cars, though most of them are dented and scratched from various traffic encounters. I am sure that most city dwellers, like my cousin Lokesh in Mumbai, want to enjoy driving their new cars. But they are also are fed up with the traffic, which is high on the list of conversation topics in every household, it seems. Easing the congestion would require large-scale and concerted public works efforts.
But the citizens could demand that the government also spread the word about the importance of following road rules as a first step. A campaign akin to the “one family, two children” push that began in the 1970s, would be a start. It could be as simple as a “follow road rules, please” ad blitz on the airwaves and in print.
That should be coupled with vigorous enforcement of traffic laws. The reach of corruption is deep and persistent, as any Indian knows, but a vociferous public demand for more officers and a strong accountability regime to curtail bribery are crucial.
Environmental awareness is up in urban India. People are spending their newly-acquired wealth abroad, when they go to visit family or, increasingly, take vacations. Public concern over foul air has caused automakers to introduce unleaded vehicles in India, a welcome development for people like my father, who no longer is beset by pollution-related allergies and asthma.
Now it is time for city dwellers to recognize that easing their traffic burdens begins with a commitment to defensive, considerate driving.
Raju Chebium is a journalist in Washington, DC.