Time In­dia’s car cap­i­tal learnt how to drive safe


Driv­ing on clogged roads is one of the most de­mand­ing tasks a Delhi res­i­dent un­der­takes daily. But is it re­ally the vol­ume of ve­hi­cles that makes driv­ing on city roads so stress­ful?

It is true that the sheer num­ber of pri­vate ve­hi­cles has cut the traf­fic speeds by half, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to time your jour­ney even dur­ing non-rush hours. But slow traf­fic and per­pet­ual jams are not the only stress fac­tors on Delhi roads. There is also bad driv­ing.

Delhi roads are the ul­ti­mate test­ing ground for your re­flexes.

A car sud­denly halt­ing or turn­ing with­out an in­di­ca­tor is com­mon. Even if you are among the few who tamely main­tain a min­i­mum fol­low­ing dis­tance, you can never un­der­es­ti­mate the car be­hind you. Such tight-spac­ing of ve­hi­cles is, in fact, con­sid­ered a road-max­imis­ing tech­nique. That is how Delhi has driven for gen­er­a­tions.

In his book, “Traf­fic: Why We Drive the Way We Do”, writ­ten more than a decade ago, Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Tom Van­der­bilt de­voted al­most a chap­ter chron­i­cling the “mael­strom of Delhi traf­fic”, where driv­ing was es­sen­tially about “good brakes, good horn, and good luck”.

What he found alarm­ing was Delhi driv­ers’ chronic ten­dency to stray be­tween lanes, par­tic­u­larly those flow­ing in the op­po­si­tion di­rec­tion. When chang­ing lanes, driv­ers seemed to rely not on mir­rors but rather on the fact that the per­son be­hind them will honk if there is a danger. Not much has changed since.

Delhi’s driv­ers, Van­der­bilt wrote, are ei­ther the best or the worst in the world — the best be­cause they are so adept at ma­noeu­vring in tight spa­ces and tricky sit­u­a­tions, or the worst be­cause they put them­selves there, to be­gin with.

Van­der­bilt also found that not too many driv­ers in Delhi were par­tic­u­larly qual­i­fied for a li­cence. He based his ob­ser­va­tion on a 2006 study con­ducted by the US Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search on the process of get­ting a driver li­cence in Delhi.

The study that Van­der­bilt quoted in his book tracked 822 in­di­vid­u­als in three groups: a “bonus” group, whose mem­bers would get a fi­nan­cial re­ward if they could ob­tain a li­cence legally in the fastest time pos­si­ble; a “les­son” group, whose mem­bers were given free driv­ing lessons be­fore they at­tempted to get a li­cence; and a “com­par­i­son” group, which was given no in­struc­tions.

The re­searchers found that the “bonus” group got li­cences much faster than other groups be­cause they used an “agent” to speed the process. But when all par­tic­i­pants were given a driv­ing test, 69% of the “bonus” group failed com­pared to 11% of those who took driv­ing lessons be­fore­hand.

In fact, not un­til re­cently, mo­tor li­cenc­ing of­fices in Delhi were in­fested with touts who “helped” peo­ple get li­cences with or with­out tak­ing a learner’s or a driv­ing test. Not sur­pris­ingly, many of those driv­ing on Delhi roads do not know the ba­sic driv­ing tech­niques such as ne­go­ti­at­ing round­abouts, U-turns, or how to over­take, change lanes or drive in the rain, fog, even at night.

Test­ing all such driv­ers for their driv­ing skills ret­ro­spec­tively may not be lo­gis­ti­cally fea­si­ble. But the au­thor­i­ties could think about or­gan­is­ing a re­fresher course for driv­ers re­new­ing their li­cences and send the er­rant ones back to driv­ing schools.

To en­sure that the fresh batches of driv­ers hit­ting city roads come with ad­e­quate train­ing, Delhi’s trans­port depart­ment has in­tro­duced a com­put­erised learn­ers’ test and built its first au­to­mated track to con­duct driv­ing tests at the Sarai Kale Khan mo­tor li­cens­ing of­fice. While the work on an­other 10 such tracks should be ex­pe­dited, stricter reg­u­la­tion is needed for the pri­vate driv­ing schools, many of which limit their lessons to teach­ing the use of steer­ing wheel, gear, clutch and brakes.

Delhi has also started com­pul­sory train­ing for com­mer­cial driv­ers be­fore they are handed over badges to drive. In the NCR towns, how­ever, pro­cure­ment of li­cences, both com­mer­cial and pri­vate, still fol­lows the old world routes. Driv­ers driv­ing for cab ag­gre­ga­tors, many of whom have li­cences from other states, are some of the worst of­fend­ers on Delhi roads.

With lim­ited strength, the traf­fic po­lice have their plate full deal­ing with dan­ger­ous of­fences that can lead to fa­tal­i­ties. So few are pe­nalised for what po­lice call “mi­nor” driv­ing of­fences. Hope­fully, the tech­nol­ogy-based sur­veil­lance and the In­tel­li­gent Traf­fic Man­age­ment Sys­tem — both likely to be rolled out this year — will make driv­ers more ac­count­able. Be­cause ev­ery act of le­niency con­trib­utes to that sense of im­punity re­spon­si­ble for so many hi­tand-run cases wit­nessed ev­ery year.

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