A couple of observations from my daily commute

That Chennai’s traffic is chaotic is indisputable. But these are problems of any growing metropolis of any Asian country that is growing at an incredible pace. While people living here for a long time may have accepted the chaos as a fact of life and may at best try to find some semblence of order within it, having returned from the US, I find myself always mentally comparing traffic regulation systems between the two places and thinking of what can be improved here.

When I grew up in Chennai, there were not as many automatic traffic lights (signals) as there are now and anyway there were not as many vehicles either. The one thing that I remember clearly is that the green-amber-red sequence worked both ways. So, while waiting at the signal, one would see the light go from red to amber and then to green. I did not even think about these things until I got to the US and after seeing the red change to green over there, started wondering what was the logic for our own lights to change to amber from red. After all, vehicles at a red light are stationary and they don’t need the amber to provide any lead time to start unlike in the other scenario, when green changes to amber before red to signal to speeding vehicles that are coming towards the intersection to slow down in preparation to stop (based on their own judgement call of their chances of crossing the intersection safely). That is a basic measure of safety in urban traffic regulation systems.

The time it takes for the green to turn to amber and finally to red depends on the speed limit of a particular road. That is a cardinal rule since the timer is set based on speed and road conditions and after careful observation of how much time it would take for a vehicle even doing a little higher than the speed-limit to safely cross the intersection given its relative position vis-a-vis the changing light. It is of course another safety feature that the green for the traffic on the other side does not come on too quickly thereby avoiding potential cases of collision for one or two vehicles that do not slow down at the intersection but try to cross it even after a couple of seconds of the light changing to red.

This is also the reason why all traffic is supposed to come to a full stop at a four-way intersection when the lights stop working (either due to malfunction or a power outage), since the principle is that when all vehicles have stopped and two vehicles in a possible collision course of each other start because of an apparent misjudgement in determining who arrived first at the intersection to use that right to proceed further, they are much less likely to cause an accident at slow starting speeds or even when do get into one, don’t suffer from major damage to vehicle or injury to occupants.

I was reminded of these things yesterday when I saw how fast the light at the Anna Salai-Binny Road (near Spencer-Connemara) intersection (facing traffic coming from the Gemini flyover side) changed from green to (amber to) red, when normally traffic on a green light on this stretch crosses at 40+ kms./hr. Although I was in an auto and was thus spared the agony of driving under such trying conditions, I was nevertheless surprised by the speed of change of the light since I could see many vehicles come to a screeching halt and one or two also attempting to cross the red when the traffic from the Binny Road side had already started crossing onto Mount Road at the junction. This intersection is a choke-point as I can see and experience on my return home from work.

One other sight that was disturbing to watch yesterday morning was seeing a 10 or 11 year old boy hanging precariously from the last of the rear footsteps of a bus in Royapettah along with some other young men. With hardly any room around the older people who were also holding on to their dear lives, the boy who did not find enough space to grasp the handles on the side of the steps which were already taken by those hanging along with him, had to stretch his small arms with some discomfort to reach and hold on to the rod of the windows of the seat before the last one. With the bus going at a fairly good speed on R.H. Road even at the curve near Swagath hotel, I wondered how long the boy could travel under such dangerous conditions. My auto was a few meters behind the bus and I was craning my neck anxiously to see that nothing untoward happens. I became relieved when I saw that the bus had stopped at the bus-stand next to the Police Station and the boy had meanwhile shifted inside (either on his own or because the other older and more able people felt sufficiently guilty about this that they let him go inside for safety).

I know that for every such kid I see for myself traveling under such dangerous conditions daily, there may be ten or twenty other kids who travel under grave risk of loss of life or injury when traveling like packed sardines in a bus or an auto or in some other vehicle and also know that I can’t do much about the larger issues which give rise to these risky situations. Complexity of magnificent proportions is indeed the hallmark of a modern, city-based lifestyle in India, which is why there is a joke about a communist leader from Russia who came to this country for the first time and remarked “I have now begun to believe in God! Without the support and blessings of some invisible power, it will be difficult to explain how India moves” :-).

9 Comments so far

  1. randramble (unregistered) on December 23rd, 2006 @ 8:16 am

    The end-quote was befitting. The way people drive in India and still live to see another day is truly amazing!

  2. Nilu (unregistered) on December 23rd, 2006 @ 9:04 am

    Is there some competition for writing horrendously long sentences with poor punctuation that make no sense? Not to mention, the bad language and annoying vocabulary.

    That I don’t expect great content is one thing. But when it’s unreadable, I wonder why it’s even written here.

  3. boo (unregistered) on December 23rd, 2006 @ 10:26 am

    @Nilu: Perhaps you ought to read more Yes Minister.

  4. anon (unregistered) on December 23rd, 2006 @ 12:07 pm

    actually it is safer for a boy to hang with other bigger guys on the board than doing it alone

  5. thennavan (unregistered) on December 25th, 2006 @ 12:28 am

    Randramble, thanks and that is the an everyday wonder of the world :-).

    Nilu, unakku poraamai! Anyway, your objective of directing traffic to your blog by selecting posts here that get readership must have been achieved by now. Santhosham thaane? :-)

    Boo, so are you a Yes Minister fan like myself? :-)

    Anon, I don’t understand what you are saying. No one can hang “alone” on a bus footboard. It is always done in the company of people who can barely keep two feet inside of the dimensions of a bus (unless such a 10 year old boy was hanging with other kids or perhaps with 1, 2 or 3 year old toddlers, deducing from what you say ;-)).

  6. Venky Krishnamoorthy (unregistered) on December 25th, 2006 @ 1:47 am

    It is true, GOD’s hand is very prevalent in India. Otherwise, we would not have come this far, inspite of our politicians :)

  7. Vijay (unregistered) on December 25th, 2006 @ 8:48 pm

    Very true observation of the red-amber-green sequencing in Indian signals. I have wondered about these myself many times. I have found it so difficult myself to stop before the red. Good post.
    Keep it up

  8. thennavan (unregistered) on December 25th, 2006 @ 11:19 pm

    Venky – and in spite of this irrefutable theory, atheists abound in the Indian blog world :-).

    Thanks Vijay :-).

  9. bejharboy (unregistered) on December 28th, 2006 @ 2:58 pm

    thennavan, reg GOD and atheists, its OK. We will install a Periyar Statue in front of your blog, and in 108 blogs.

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