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.