Wednesday, March 21, 2012

India’s new Highways are lawless Banana Republics!

The Highways of yore
The people of India complacently accepted and put up with substandard highways for about 50 years since independence. The highways then used to consist of single and double lane undivided carriageways that were poorly planned, even more poorly executed and was intended to go through every little human habitation along the way when traveling from one major city to another. This meant that road journeys were invariably the last option that any sensible person would consider as they usually turned out to be perilous, long-winded and usually undertaken only during daylight hours, if at all. Obviously, private car owners preferred to stay off them, and the only demographic that really used the highways of yore were the truckers, and they completely ruled the roost there! The larger the truck, the more the driver could dictate the terms on which other highway users were allowed to use them.  An accident or a breakdown in the middle of nowhere usually meant several hours if not days of misery, constantly worrying about becoming a victim of a dacoity or other such life altering experiences.
Considering the fact that India then offered just some 3 or 4 options for cars and 2 options for 2-wheelers, private vehicle ownership was very slim and of those, the numbers willing to risk the perils of a highway journey were few. However, despite the then overwhelming majority of the occupants being truckers and fewer numbers of somewhat slow moving personal vehicles, the driving etiquette on the highways had evolved into a fine art (and art literally in instructions on the rear of all trucks). ‘Use Dippar at Night’, ‘Sound O.K. Horn’, ‘Overtake from Right’ were the popular refrains seen on all trucks, while ‘Power Break’ and ‘Mark I’, ‘Mark II’ and ‘Mark IV’ was all the private car owners had to be satisfied with. Taxi’s loved saying ‘Show Hand Signals’, but that was it. Of course, while it is really not relevant to this discussion, it is difficult to not mention the other messages truckers peppered us with like ‘We Two Ours One’, ‘Small family Happy Family’, ‘God is One’ amongst others spreading the social message of small families or profound theology!
Thus, for the sheer need of ensuring the safety of human life, it was back then necessary to observe some very basic driving rules to avoid being involved in a head-on collision, like driving in a single file, overtaking only when the road curves to the right, the flashing of headlights while doing so, switching on the right turn indicator for a short spell to inform the vehicle behind that it was safe to overtake you, dipping your High Beam while passing oncoming traffic and honking for every conceivable other reason. These had all become the hallmarks of a good highway driver, and anyone who was not aware of these rules of interaction were immediately identified just from the way they drove and dismissed off as ‘City Lubbers’ (by the genteel of course, the truckers preferred ‘Sister Violator’ in Punjabi) and were avoided like the plague on the highways as they were expected to invariably cause disasters on the road due to their untrained driving skills.
Despite all the above, in many ways, driving on the highways in those days was a much more pleasurable experience than driving on our new highways today, due to the strict and wholly voluntary adherence to the above code, unlike now. The number of fatalities on Indian Highways is depressingly the highest in the world despite our not being the most populous country or the country with the largest number of vehicles plying.
The Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) and the NS / EW Corridors
The NDA Government for the first time since independence recognized the value of a good highway network infrastructure and undertook a massive exercise of converting a few of the highways linking the four Metros into modern roadways. The roads were all divided, 4 laned or 6 laned, and built to a very good specification right from the sub-grade development to the final black-topping. Instead of winding their way through every town and village along the way, highways were straightened off and wherever they had to travel through towns, they now took the Arial route via countless elevated roads and flyovers. This has immeasurably improved the quality of the journey as the average speed has close to doubled when compared to earlier and travel times cut down drastically. For instance, driving from Bangalore to Chennai on the old highway used to take close to 8 hours, while now the same journey on the GQ road takes just 5 hours. Of course, the time taken to travel from your home to the highway has gone up manifold, meaning that you still take 8 hours or more for completing ‘home to home’ journeys, but that’s a different story altogether, isn’t it?! Fodder for another article? Perhaps!
So they’re faster, but are they safer?
Absolutely not! Due to the highways being divided, the chances of a head-on collision have diminished no doubt, but the highway user has to contend with many new devils.
With the Indian economy being on the ascendency and incomes constantly going up, there has been an explosion of new cars on the highways. From the grand choice of 4 vehicles, I understand that an Indian customer has an array of over 400 models, each available in 3 or more variants ending up in a mind boggling surfeit of choice. This has contributed a large number of modern, fast and safe cars to the highways, and millions of these are making daily road journeys crisscrossing the country. Unfortunately, this market change seems to have completely eluded the truck buyers and we still overwhelmingly see the same two World War II relics ruling the road. They are seemingly desperately slow, sluggish in response, unbelievably uncomfortable for the drivers and hence unsafe by the oodles for both the drivers and the other road users. This shocking disparity in the type of vehicles now sharing highway space is perhaps the root of the problem.
Another very unique Indian oddity is the way that the villagers have decided that the highway running outside their homes is just an extension of their living rooms. In the past too, roads were used to dry the harvested crop, and used for the transport of everything using animal carts that dictated the speed on that section of the highway. These days, perhaps due to a drastic increase in population, people seem to consider the highway as good living space, with families lounging, walking around in slow abandon, children playing and animals herded on it, pedestrians crossing anywhere they feel like, or even private vehicles parked there. In sections of a highway passing through villages and towns where there is no provision of a service lane, such abuses can occupy one lane of the highway for the length of the village and effectively impede the movement of traffic for that distance.
Further, as mentioned earlier, the trucks that ply on our highways seem to continue to be built on outmoded technologies and evidently under-powered in most cases. Truck drivers apparently have to struggle when their vehicles are fully loaded to make them move smartly, as the act of acceleration and maintenance of a constant speed is quite a challenge. Thus, if they stick to the left lane as they are required to, they will end up constantly having to brake for all the illegal occupants of the road and then repeatedly struggle to again pick up speed and maintain a constant rate of travel, which could throw their entire logistics schedule out of gear making them miss deadlines and run into unhappy clients. Thus, to save themselves the trouble of trying to coax these unyielding machines, they end up avoiding the left lane altogether and illegally stick permanently to the overtaking lane on the extreme right. The truckers being what they are behave in a very obstinate manner and refuse to vacate the overtaking lane despite any amount of honking and flashing of headlights from vehicles behind intending to overtake them. Thus, most dangerously, all other vehicles are forced to overtake these monsters from the left, leading to high levels of anxiety and threat perception while driving and overtaking.
The new highways are unsafe due to several other aspects too. Consider this. If one is driving on a divided highway at a comfortable speed, one should never be surprised if the bumper to bumper distance between the truck in front and your vehicle rapidly reduces for no apparent reason – most often, the truck just wants to make a right turn and brakes to cut speed, but more often than not, as his tail / brake lamps do not function, this is not evident to the vehicle behind. Another shocker is maneuvering around a curve, and suddenly finding a truck or tractor coming on the wrong half of the road towards you. This is experienced by most highway users during almost every journey as truckers and villagers do not want to drive the long way around a divided highway, and think that it is perfectly normal to want to reach an intersection by driving the wrong way for a shorter distance. Thus, it is evident that our highways are quite absurd and fraught with danger unlike expressways due to the presence of ‘At Grade Intersections’, where multi-axle vehicles are permitted to make U-turns and other such inanities. The highway authorities must wake up to the safety problems and urgently remove all intersections and adopt the Exit Lane / Elevated Intersections to replace all ‘at grade’ intersections at the earliest.
Add to this the problem of poorly maintained trucks often breaking down on the highways, and the drivers just leaving them where they have broken down – their contribution to ensuring the safety of the other road users largely consisting of breaking off a tree branch and sticking it into the back of the truck and the placement of small boulders around the broken down vehicle. The boulders are sometimes just left behind when the truck resumes its journey or gets towed due to the utter callousness of the truckers. One reads in the news about fast moving cars just crashing into the backs of stationery trucks illegally stopped / parked on the highways, killing young and promising people with depressing regularity.
Thus, looking at all the problems one encounters on our highways it is easy to conclude that the rules and etiquette of highway driving of the last century have deteriorated and the rule of law all but disappeared. In short, our highways are quickly turning into lawless enclaves like some sort of narrow strip banana republics! Urgent and sustained action is required to abate and reverse this trend and ensure that our highways don’t just look world class, but are indeed so in every manner.
What is the need of the hour?
Now that we have the Highways, we also have to ensure that people use them properly and safely. Of critical and urgent importance in the publishing of a Highway Driving Code, that will clearly spell out the rules that one will have to follow on the Highways, Safety Considerations, Good Highway Etiquette, Concern for the safety of other road users,  and the education of all concerned on the do’s and don’ts of driving on the highways. This needs to be made available extensively by permitting downloads from the net and printed booklets being distributed at every Toll Booth, Driving Schools, amongst others. Vehicles should also be classified depending on the permitted speed of travel into ‘Lane 1 only’, ‘Emergency Vehicle’ and ‘General’. Lane restriction stickers that publish this about the status of a vehicle needs to be introduced, and all vehicles restricted to lane 1 should compulsorily exhibit the sticker in a particular location. The rules have to be very strictly enforced, and any vehicles found to be in violation of any of the above needs to be fined heavily as a deterrent and more serious offenses / repeat offenses should entail the banning of such drivers from driving on the highways.
Safety and survival on the highways will improve drastically if the access to an accident spot by emergency vehicles is totally unrestricted, so that they can reach there within the so-called ‘Golden Hour’. All highways should have designated Emergency Lanes or Hard Shoulders that are never occupied by any other vehicle except those designated as eligible to do so. Other vehicles using and or blocking emergency lanes must be seized and the drivers made to face the full force of the law without fear or favor by the police.
It is being seen more often than not, that most of the highway drivers these days are not only lousy drivers, but also uncouth and cowardly to boot. We see a lot of rash and negligent driving and scant respect being shown to the other road users and courtesy an unexplored realm. In a majority of the cases when a vehicle is involved in an accident, the first impulse of an Indian driver would apparently be to abscond. I am sure that if drivers who cause these accidents stop and ensure that sufficient and speedy medical assistance is rendered, the number of highway related fatalities would drop drastically. Thus, all drivers must be educated on their responsibility towards accident victims by the issuance of a step by step procedure to be followed in case of being involved in an accident. In the event of non-compliance, extremely stringent action needs to be initiated for drivers involved in Hit & Run cases, to make running away from the scene of an accident a complete non-option. Will the registering a case of Attempted Murder be sufficient? I would think so. This is a non-bailable offense and should make every person think a hundred times before he or she absconds.
The ‘let us run’ philosophy perhaps is in vogue due to the perceived inconvenience that one believes that one would have to put up with by facing police investigations and the constant fear of having to bribe them for keeping one’s name and time in the clear. Evidently this impression is a hangover from colonial times and is probably accurate to a large extent, and hence the police will also need to be sensitized to appreciate and minimize inconvenience to persons who have stopped at an accident site and rendered assistance. Those drivers who are directly responsible for an accident, but who had taken all steps to conform to the rule book shall be incentivized by being asked to face a lesser charge, if possible. Third party drivers who render assistance should be complemented and receive a suitable reward or citation which can be recovered from the guilty hit-and-run driver. A strict and zero-tolerance implementation of the above rules should be insisted upon from the police, who also need to be well compensated to ensure that they are not readily susceptible to bribery.
Our highways require lots more Signage than existing, offering more guidance to the users. The highways shall also be laned as per international highway norms, and all guidelines strictly enforced. Our highways should ensure that all safety features like Truck Lay-bye docks, Emergency Parking Bays, Hard Shoulders, Exit Lanes and Merging Lanes are marked out and followed. The highways shall also be better monitored by the placement of more CCTV Cameras and Speed Measuring Devices to ensure that they are constantly under the supervision of the police who are not impeded by jurisdictional black-spots between two district police stations or other problems that currently obstruct them.
Perhaps the time is right for the introduction of a specialized Highway Police Force, which has complete and unrestricted jurisdictional hold over the highways and shall not be restricted by districts or sub-divisions and police stations. I suppose that jurisdiction shall have to be restricted to State borders as per the provisions of the Constitution, but as we are all part of the Indian Union, hot pursuit of drivers on the run should be permitted without any restrictions. Needless to say, this special police force, which is expected to perform the roles of both Traffic and Law & Order Police, would be part of the Armed Constabulary and hence the extensive training and sensitization of such a police force is crucial. Only the brightest and the best of cadets should be offered a place on the Highway Police force, and their hands need to be strengthened by the passing of any number of new laws and by-laws that permit the levy of steep and deterrent fines, license suspensions / cancellations, banning from highway driving, etc.
To conclude, I would like to reiterate that our Highways need to be made safe so that the unacceptably high accident rate is all but wiped out. Accidents, especially involving the death of young and contributing members of society is a huge loss to the nation, both in terms of the expense involved in the treatment, insurance payouts, investigation and prosecution, but also the perpetual loss of the dead persons’ contributions towards the exchequer in his or her lifetime. To improve the survival rate of accident victims, Emergency Assistance Call Points supported by Ambulance Stations and Police Outposts are of critical importance.
The Government should urgently justify the toll collected by making the highways places  of total and complete safety and of law abidance, and reverse the trend that is currently inexorably dragging us towards banana republic-ism.
Please also read:


  1. Wonderful article Uncle!!! Every time that we drive to Mysore or Hassan or any other place, I feel extremely irritated by the truck drivers who stubbornly refuse to move to the left of the lane. I have always felt that a Highway Patrol Force as you have suggested is most essential to ensure the strict implementation of the existing laws. I strongly feel that half our problems would be solved if there were strict enforcement of the existing laws.... At the same time, there also needs to be proper enforcement of traffic laws within the city, but then I guess that's a topic for another article ;-)...

    1. Dear Prashanth, thank you for your endorsement. As you mentioned, driving on the highways is not an enjoyable experience.

      We need to change the traffic management system from the ground up.