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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Drive safe

Because the streets are filled with idiots; and one of them is headed straight for you

I can’t remember the last time an ad struck such an immediate chord with me. It opens with a guy driving a scooter with his pregnant wife sitting behind him. They are discussing the movie they just saw, laughing and joking with one another. Just then, a car comes crashing into the street, jumping a red light – and nearly running them down in the process. The man brakes just in time and the camera moves to a close-up of his shocked face.

“Are you okay?” he asks his wife, who is clutching her baby bump protectively. His ashen-faced wife responds with a breathless, “Yes, I am fine.”

And the voiceover says, “Because the streets are filled with idiots.”

Of course the ad is geared towards selling a particular brand of tyres which comes with superior grip and various anti-skid features. But why it works is because it tells us a truth that is universally acknowledged: our streets are filled with idiots. And that at the end of the day no matter how safely you drive or how faithfully you follow all the traffic rules, there are always enough fools out there to cause an accident.

It doesn’t really matter where you live. One metro is as bad as the other and the smaller towns are no better. People run signals with impunity, jump lanes at will, turn without bothering with the indicator, overtake from the wrong side, side-swipe you at the slightest provocation, and drive much too fast on roads with far too much traffic, weaving in and out like mad drunks (which, scarily enough, some of them are).

You need nerves of steel to survive a day out on Indian roads. If you are driving a car, you have to look out for jaywalking pedestrians who believe that they have right of way in every situation; you must dodge oversized buses and overloaded trucks which think nothing of squeezing you off the road; you need to watch for fellow drivers who happily flout every traffic rule, taking a U-turn where it is expressly forbidden and driving down the wrong direction in one-way lanes.

Sometimes when I watch the chaos that characterises our roads from the safety of the back seat – unfortunately (or do I mean fortunately?) I never did learn how to drive in my youth and now it is far too late – I wonder how we manage to survive the madness: the road rage; the reckless overtaking; the illegal parking; and yes, the sheer idiocy.

The streets are filled with idiots. I had an encounter with one shining example a couple of weeks ago when I emerged from my bank. The bright spark had parked his car bang in the middle of the street outside and then disappeared on some mysterious errand. The traffic backed up on the road creating a complete logjam while the parking attendants scrambled around to find him. After a good 15 minutes, he emerged from one of the adjacent buildings, completely ignored the irate shouts of the people stuck in their cars because of him, calmly started his car and drove away.

I guess it could have been worse. He could have shouted back, the fight could have escalated, violence could have resulted and someone could have been killed.

Yes, that’s been known to happen too, most famously in Delhi’s tony Khan Market, where an altercation led to the death of a manager of a nearby restaurant. He got into a fight with another man at the crossing, was angry enough to step out of his car to hit him, the other driver tried to speed away and ran over him – accidentally, or so the story goes – resulting in his death.

Sadly, such events are not as rare as we would like to think. Every week or so there is a story in our newspapers about one such case. Two neighbours got into a spat about a parking space; one pulled out a gun and shot the other fellow dead. Two cars collided into one another in a busy street; one driver was beaten so badly that he ended up in hospital. A child was run over by a DTC bus, the driver is now absconding. A carload of people were killed as they ran into a truck on a highway.

What is even more worrying is the stuff that is considered so routine that we no longer even bother to bat an eyelid at it. The odd scratch and bump on the car is seen as par for the course if you drive on Indian roads. Nobody thinks twice about driving back home after a party, no matter how many drinks you have put away in the course of the evening. And running a light or taking an illegal turn is okay so long as there is no cop around to note your car number and send you a challaan.

One of the reasons why there are so many idiots out on the road is just this sab-chalta-hai attitude most of us adopt on the roads. After all, if we don’t hold ourselves up to any significant standard of good behaviour when we are behind the wheel, how on earth can we expect other people to behave with a modicum of good sense?

Until that changes, I am afraid, the tag line of that ad will remain as accurate as ever – and our streets will remain filled with idiots.


Anubha Gujral said...

Its very sad that traffic etiquettes in India are taken so lightly & all the rules in the book flouted under the nose of our "Vigilant".

I met with a major accident once after picking my only daughter from school, we were waiting at a red-light to take a right turn & out of nowhere this big tata safari rammed into our stationary car & by the time I could realize what happened, little pieces of glass were all over my mouth & eyes & I thought for a second maybe my daughter has flown out of the car. Since he hit it on the side where she was sitting. Some odd 200 people gathered all of a sudden to be mute spectators of our crying & shock.

That man walked upto us and said he was a fellow parent and was getting late to pick his kid, but he could do me a favor by taking me & my daughter to the hospital. I was so angry, that I hurdled swears at him, I also told him that his 2 second rush would have turned my world upside down. To which he responded, "Oh well, it seems you are over-reacting, you have minor wounds & your child is "alive".

After that episode we were advised not to go the cops as legal matters are such a pain. I prepared a report for a TV channel's citizen journo to which they said, "its your personal matter & not related to the society". I used to get very angry each-time I saw this guy in school, eventually we changed my daughter's school as that fellow wasn't worth the anger. he seemed immune to human lives.

You have given a perfect title to the article, "The road is filled with idiots". I wish we've traffic etiquette workshops for our people, or better still military training should be made mandatory here, like in the west. Maybe then our young boys would know feeling the rev isn't about fast driving. Its not even cool, it reflects your insensitivity towards the society.

Akhil Dua said...


You're absolutely right about the power of that ad. It seems to hit a nerve across demographics...

My road rage has increased after coming back to India from the States. I seem to converse more with my fellow users of road than people sitting me in the car. Usually it is filled with colorful words, head shaking from left to right and hands flying up in wonder.

I drive mostly alone now!

O P Tandon said...

Anubha and Akhil have left nothing further to add to the sorry state of affairs on the roads and the insensitivity of the drivers. On a macro level we see senseless production of transport vehicles in adequate infrastructure viz. roads etc. and lack of parking space. Unless suitable steps are taken to regulate these aspects, I am afraid the population of idiots will swell.

KrRahul said...

Why only streets, even offices are filled with idiots. Anyway I loved this ad too. And yes, I agree with its truth… Roads are too unsafe…