Is bad driving a right?

Published: Oct 05, 2019, 05:10 IST | lindsay pereira | Mumbai

The hue and cry against revised rules or higher fines for breaking the law says a lot about our misplaced priorities

There have been numerous attempts at making our streets safer for as long as I can remember. None of them, unfortunately, seem to have worked. Representation pic
There have been numerous attempts at making our streets safer for as long as I can remember. None of them, unfortunately, seem to have worked. Representation pic

Lindsay PereiraIf you can drive in Bombay, you can drive anywhere on the planet. I have heard this said to me more often than I care to remember, but don't really think it's true. Yes, Bombay's roads do prepare one for everything that is horrific about human nature, but I can't believe anyone who says drivers in other Indian cities behave any better. I learned this the hard way on the Delhi-Agra highway a few years ago. I was at a traffic light and couldn't understand why vehicles of all shapes and sizes chose to drive on a side of the road that was clearly not meant for them. For a minute, I had to cross-check with a map to make sure I wasn't the one doing something wrong.

Yes, Bombay has awful drivers, but I couldn't think of any of them being stupid enough to simply drive against traffic. In Agra, however, I could simply stand and stare while this happened all day. I asked a local how this was possible, and whether it was unusual. 'It's normal,' came the reply, followed by the pertinent question: 'Who's going to stop them?'

There have been numerous attempts at making our streets safer for as long as I can remember. None of them have worked. There have been expert committees, recommendations by everyone from former policemen to neighbourhood grandmas, none of which appear to have had any impact on the stressful conditions we all commute in. A lot of this has to do with the appalling conditions of our roads, because a single pothole can wreak havoc on the highway, compelling drivers to rush into other lanes to avoid damage.

And yet, it's hard to try and understand why so many of us resent any attempt to be seriously fined. Is this a pre-emptive plan to make sure none of us will have to pay those amounts ourselves? Does this mean we all expect to be labelled defaulters at some point, whether we choose to think of ourselves as drivers who break the law or not? Or are we simply against the idea of higher fines because we don't want to give the government any more money than we need to?

There have been numerous arguments based on the latter, with angry drivers complaining about why they shouldn't have to pay fines when they aren't given decent roads to drive on. This reason is misplaced, because the notion of higher fines is actually meant to be a deterrent that may, hopefully, lead to genuine change as far as driving habits are concerned. The government of Maharashtra may never be able to give us a decent road, because doing that simply isn't economically viable for people whose job it is to siphon off as much of our taxes as possible. It shouldn't affect our ability to try and be more careful though, because careful drivers simply make us all breathe a little easier.

I remember the tests I took in order to get my licence. The first one, held decades ago, didn't really exist. A representative of a driving school simply obtained my licence for me, without bothering to see if I could genuinely commandeer a vehicle or not. The next time I applied, a few years ago, there was a test. It took all of 120 seconds though, and simply required me to drive a distance of approximately 30 metres, after which a constable deemed me qualified and ready for the mean streets.

The presence of thousands of driving applicants is routinely cited as a reason why driving tests aren't stringent enough. Maybe the traffic police need to ensure there aren't unnecessary pending files on their desks. There are presumably a lot more people applying for passports though, and I have never noticed paperwork for that process get any simpler. Someone must be questioned about why everyone's safety on the streets isn't taken as seriously as the ability of a few people to fly outside the country. If we can't ensure that people getting licences really are fit to drive, what stops us from preventing them until we can find out?

I don't know if heavier fines will be accepted, whether our driving habits will change, or if governments across all states will take road safety as seriously as they ought to. What I do know is a lot more people die on our streets than they need to. We are paying a heavy price already, but just haven't noticed it yet.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira

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