Chennai’s second deadly sin

The city’s second deadly sin is the state of its traffic. Who’s responsible? Not just the police, but every one of us. Most people on the road today seem unaware of common courtesies, leave alone the traffic rules. A visit to any of the RTOs, and the way licenses are issued and to whom, can be quite illuminating. Understanding of traffic rules is treated as a formality, making it seem that rules are only to be followed by exception, but broken in common practice.

More than anything else, it is the sheer lack of discipline on the road that makes driving in Chennai such a harrowing experience. Every driver, two wheeler rider and pedestrian is to blame for this state of affairs. How difficult is it to follow the rules? Well, to begin with, you need to know what they are. Then have a willingness to stick to them no matter how the rest of the traffic behaves. If enough of us decide to do that, Chennai will slowly become a better place. (Not a chance, you’re thinking!)

Most of us don’t even follow the rule of not overtaking on the left, or not overtaking on curves. Two wheelers go one better, overtaking on a curve on the inside, making their getting between a car and the kerb a real possibility. In fact two wheeler riders seem to have decided that their safety is the responsibility of the four wheeler drivers. They overtake at will, either to the left or right; race between the narrow gap between lanes, even between moving cars and buses; overtake and pass in front of cars and slow down suddenly to avoid the vehicle in front; race ahead of a car approaching a median and then cut in front of it- the list of dangerous driving instances we come across every day are legion.

Buses and trucks take advantage of their size and noise levels to intimidate the other traffic, often coming close behind them and racing their engines and blowing their horns. Even at traffic lights when the light is still red. They are also famous for stopping on the extreme left lane at a traffic light, and then turning right across lanes of moving traffic. If you count the number of people who have died under the wheels of a bus or truck over the last five years, the enormity of the deadly toll becomes evident. Who is to blame? Not just those drivers, but also the others who took their chances. As well as every one of us who drove without any discipline what so ever, encouraging others to do the same.

Auto rickshaw drivers, of course, are in a class of their own. Most don’t have the slightest idea of how flimsy and unsteady they are, and drive them with wild abandon at ridiculous speeds, weaving in and out of traffic and taking all kinds of chances. Many of them are over loaded, especially with school children in the mornings, making one blanche at the thought of what could happen. What would mothers say if they were able to follow the course of the auto that takes the children every day to school? Have they ever seen how dangerous it is, and spoken to the driver about his reckless ways?

People who have drivers to drive them around are equally to blame. How many of them keep an eye on their driver to ensure that he drives in a manner that is acceptable? Very, very few. In fact people are proud of drivers who weave through traffic, breaking all kinds of rules, because they get them to their destination ‘faster’. Most drivers fold back the side rear view mirrors because that gives them the ability to drive through very narrow gaps in the traffic without their hitting the sides. While their owners take the view that they are not driving and are not responsible for how their driver drives. Well people, its your car, and if you don’t correct your driver, you are responsible for what happens as a consequence.

What about the pedestrians? Jay walking is the order of the day, with pedestrian crossings ignored. Even where there are high dividers, people climb over them and jump down amidst moving traffic on the other side. Today’s Hindu has a picture of IT ‘professionals’ climbing over the divider on the IT Corridor, trampling over the newly planted foliage in the divider, and walking through traffic. Even heavily trafficked roads like Nungambakkam High Road have pedestrians routinely doing this. At the same time, at pedestrian crossings, the traffic won’t wait for people to cross. If they see someone trying to cross, traffic will speed up to prevent them, rather than slow down to enable them to do so. Much like traffic speeds up at the orange light, instead of slowing to a stop!

What about the police in all this? Most of them don’t seem to know traffic rules, and certainly don’t enforce them. They hang around watching the chaos with impassive faces until an accident occurs when they step in. They are often missing at peak hours at busy intersections when absolute anarchy reigns- we don’t even respect traffic lights. No doubt they are understaffed, but more than anything else, its their attitude of not enforcing any rules at all that has led to the current state of affairs. So that in many parts, especially the suburbs, there is absolute anarchy: traffic simply drives on the wrong side of the road if they find their way blocked by other vehicles; they swing out even to overtake what they perceive as a slow moving vehicle. This was at least something that wasn’t common even a year ago. Now it’s routine.

Where does it leave Chennai? With a growing toll of dead, and a much larger number maimed or crippled for life. Think of the human suffering, pain and high cost to the families who have either lost loved ones, either a student or the father, often both parents, to the state of our traffic. Is it worth it for the selfish reason of trying to get somewhere ‘faster’ at every one else’s cost? Is it worth carrying our lack of self discipline on to the roads to the detriment and harm of fellow citizens? You decide.

14 Comments so far

  1. boo (unregistered) on December 20th, 2006 @ 10:05 pm

    Today’s Hindu has a picture of IT ‘professionals’ climbing over the divider on the IT Corridor, trampling over the newly planted foliage in the divider, and walking through traffic.

    Two words: Natural Selection. Thus do the terminally stupid remove themselves from the gene pool, raising the average survival ability of the remaining.

    I’m not totally serious however. There are a significant number of passengers who die solely due to the driver’s inability to handle a road situation.

    About speed, Homer Simpson summarized it best when opposing a proposed 55 mile per hour speed limit: “Sure, it’ll save a few lives, but millions will be late!”

  2. Jay (unregistered) on December 20th, 2006 @ 11:30 pm

    You seem to be oblivious to the fact there are no proper sidewalks aka platforms for people to walk. There are no proper facilities for walking pedestrians. Cities exist for people not just for vehicles.
    Here’s some more to read about chennai’s condition.

    Sidewalks now !

    Wheelchair Test for Sidewalks

  3. JoeV (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 2:11 am

    The traffic issues we have in Chennai is multidimensional and there is no silver bullet to solve all of them in one swipe.

    The Quality/design of the roads themselves are in a sorry state of affairs.
    Very few of our main roads have a merge lanes or lanes themselves for that matter.
    There is no proper egress or ingress for intersections.
    For Drivers(not only in Chennai) there is NO concept of ‘You own your lane’.
    At a given moment, If you look at a typical intersection where 4 lanes meet, there will be 24 vehicles and four pedestrians and two rickshaws competing to cross at the same time.
    No wonder its a nightmarish experience if the same road/lane is shared by Trucks, cars, two wheelers, cows and pedestrians alike.
    The pedestrians themselves have little to be blamed if there is limited sidewalk space or if the sidewalks themselves are occupied by street hawkers or vendors.

  4. sj (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 6:01 am

    The only way that Chennai’s traffic can be solved this is to have more traffic police who should be taught the traffic rules themselves, penalties should be issued on the spot for people who break rules. The roads should be made in a way that allows lanes to merge and also have lanes that are for autos, lorries and cars. Each road should have lane marking and mediam strips I have been overseas where there is no traffic police on major roads and they seems to be good traffic flow as people are disciplined.

  5. david (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 7:32 am

    I completely agree about the state of our road infrastructure, including the lack of proper side walks compounding the situation. In fact, if one were to list everything, this would have been a very long post! The main point is still that there has to be personal dispcipline- particularly because the state of the roads is so bad.

  6. Parthasarathy (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 7:39 am

    What is so peculiar about Chennai roads?

    The traffic woes are not peculiar to Chennai.
    It is common to all growing Indian cities.

    The lack of new roads or repair to the existing ones is not peculiar to Chennai either.

    The roads should be well maintained and new ones laid. Cleanliness of the road sides, including completely removing of any shops that may encroach onto the road needs a lot of political will – but the absence of such political will is not peculiar to Chennai either.

    In all, the article lists out what we already know, but it is ‘Indian city sin’ since its is nt peculiar to Chennai.

    Autos? Well, there you might have a point.

  7. bejharboy (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 8:33 am

    Parthasarathy, how does generalising the sin as “Indian Deadly Sin” help in anyway to Chennai? It is this typical attitude of our guys, refusing to accept things, and living with it, that has lead to so many problems.
    David, you forgot the Govt vehicles who have a lane on their own – always on the wrong side of the yellow line. They have those high-ranking officials who dont seem to mind the ride they are having at the cost of convenience of fellow road users.
    Add to it, the attitude of talking on a mobile phone, and slowing down in a heavy traffic as someone has to take that life-depending call, or see that million dollar sms and respond to it. It is so scary to sit in a public transport, and see the driver riding at top speed while chatting away on the mobile phone.
    Another major culprit these days – the IT company and college buses.

  8. saravanan (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 10:58 am

    I dont think chennai’s traffic problems are becoz of roads or sidewalks…Its simply an attitude of the people on the road. The people who are so amanable and nice change into their cheapest behaviour on the road..utter choas and lack of proper road management. I think mumbai(I lived there for 8 yrs) public has much better road discipline than chennai as for as I know. One more thing is lack of ownership of larger vehicle..jus see how many vehicles(not 2 wheelers) have the owner as the drivers…except new vehicle owners(predominently IT guys). most of the vehicles have hired drivers and they have little respect for traffic rules, road safety and vehicle water tankers.also Its very easy to escape if u break traffic rules..give the mama Rs 50 and u r ready to break the rule once again that itself if u get caught…can go on on like this ..I still shiver to drive around chennai when Im coming down here…God save chennaities on the rd…

  9. T.Rajapandian (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 12:54 pm

    Even if there were proper sidewalks (platforms as they are popularly known), pedestrians would not dare use them since the most common use of sidewalks is as public latrines.Just try using the sidewalk opposite Chennai central railway station in front of GH.This reflects the civility and culture of the people as a whole.I think its the rural people who are used to shitting outside who dirty our cities.
    Coming to the point of road manners I have seen sophisticated mothers walking with their children holding on to their right hand thereby exposing the little ones to passing traffic.You need not be a rocket engineer to figure out that the child needs to be held by the left hand near the sidewalk and that the adult should be on the outer side.What about the issue of people jaywalking with a mobile phone stuck on their ears as if the world is coming to an end if they dont answer that call?

  10. Raj (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 1:41 pm

    I cant imagine someone coming up with a reason that the problem in Chennai traffic is due to growth. Thats the most ridiculous reason I can think of. I have been to almost every South Indian major city, and I have seen the most careless traffic sense in the people here. Forget about traffic sense, most of them dont even seem to have basic minimum common sense on the roads. No one need to tell them that if they go slowly while crossing a busy highway (that too not along the zebra line) they have a high chance of getting run over. But still they will do it… every time they get a chance.
    As mentioned in the document, the very first thing a bus driver does once he starts off from a bus stop is to cross diagonally from left to right. I had been thinking hard to find a reason for this, but I failed miserably. He manages to block the entire traffic on the road by doig this.
    No level of education will help this. The only thing that can help is punishment. Fine them every time they break the rules. Within no time, I can guarantee that we will have enough money to do all development activities for the entire country.
    Another interesting aspect is that at signals where they have installed a counter, people by default start moving once the count is less than 10. I have been embarassed umpteen number of times when I was at the front of the signal, and people start honking and scolding me for not moving, while the signal is still red. After driving in Chennai for almost 3 years now, I am sure I will have to go and sit for driving lessons again if I go to another city, coz I seem to have lost my ability to judge whats right and whats wrong to do on the road.

    – Raj

  11. prabhu (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 1:57 pm

    There are thing which we can do and which we cant. Lets concentrate on the things we can.

    Personal discipline – is one thing which we can work on. I realized this a month or so ago, and I’m trying to be as disciplined as i can. Even now, i do break the rules, but the number has come down. Know what, i felt i personally contribute something to the society by adhering to the traffic rules when i drive my bike. Yesterday, i zoomed ahead a signal(Red) with may others to accompany me, But a auto stood firmly behind the stop line.
    I noticed this because, i try to be disciplined on the road. When i don’t try, i would not have remembered that auto now. So my thanks to David to bring up this issue. Only when people start to discuss about these issues they recognize the mistakes they do.

    I think it is the lack of awareness which i the main cause for the current traffic situation than the external factors. When educated people disobey the rules, i don’t expect to see the lorry drivers to stick to a lane. In fact if one drives on a highway, they’ll come to know how disciplined they are. It the common people like us who drive them nuts!

    One example – if anyone of you use Anna flyover during the peak time, u can see the number of motorist especially two wheelers and auto’s who come from teynampet to thousand lights ignoring the center median.
    If you tend to be one among them try not to do that.

    For people who talk about bad roads, rash driving by youngster’s, policemen and others. Don’t expect others to follow the rules when you don’t want to.

    Stuffs which we cant do
    All external factors come under this topic
    Police, Roads, other riders.

    Police – people many constables have completed only plus two, if not less. When i make mistakes, i don’t have any reason to point them.
    At the same time, to control this mess they are the best resources we have. By training a few thousand police, we can achieve a disciplined ride from a few million Chennai vasi’s.

    Road’s – when compared to Bangalore, we have better road’s. But we don’t utilize them properly. We’ll park our vehicle on the road side and talk on the mobile, don’t care even if it is Mount road.We always park our vehicles on our street according to our comfort. Lets get disciplined here too.

    Other drivers – Have to create this awareness to them, who are mostly uneducated.

    So, the first step is to be self disciplined.

  12. Albert (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 4:35 pm

    Kick out all these traffic police’ from the Chennai Roads. Recruit jobless Graduates, train them, give them full rights to slap spot fine (a hefty one not 50 bugs) or even snatch the original license and in severe cases the vehicle itself. Publish in all newspapers, what the drivers should do while driving and what they should not do. Chennai traffic will surely become better and drivers will love to drive in Chennai. Before anything, all roads should be repaired and lanes should be marked. Just implement this, you will see wonders.

  13. vatsan (unregistered) on December 21st, 2006 @ 8:25 pm

    david, the fun of driving in chennai exists only as long as its an art, if it becomes a science, as u suggest, the entire fun is gone :)

  14. Thad E. Ginathom (unregistered) on December 22nd, 2006 @ 1:31 pm

    If traffic in Chennai ever becomes as regulated and controlled as it is in London then it will grind to an absolute halt. While my London friends will be sitting, stationary, in orderly queues in orderly lanes, at least we here are getting somewhere with our weaving and using every bit of road we can.

    In my first few weeks of driving here I have learnt (as people told me I would) that what seems terrifying to the passenger or pedestrian is not nearly so bad when you actually do it!

    All around the world it is said that people change when they get behind the wheel of a car! But I am still astonished by the absolute disregard for safety —and often even for the convenience of others— shown here. Just try stopping in the middle of a busy London main road (yes, making no attempt to park) while casually letting passengers out! Phew! You’d be lucky to survive the experience! Perhaps part of the problem is that, for all the noise of hand on horn, people here are too willing to let everybody else get away with everything?

    To change the situation? It would [i]begin[/i] with thorough driving education and a stiff, hard-to-pass test.

    But how to introduce road safety to people who consider a two-wheeler a suitable vehicle for a family of three —or four, or five?

    Someone said to me recently that they have their worst accidents when driving slowly, as it takes speed to make them think about what they are doing. How do you educate people out of that kind of madness?

    It is a tough situation. It will get worse. The young are always immortal in their own view — and the more youngsters here are getting better jobs and faster vehicles, the more madness will be apparent.

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