Two-way trafficOne way to reduce the idiocy of drivers is to ensure that the rules are equally sensible
The other day, my nine-year-old daughter asked if she could ride a bicycle to school when she gets older. My instant response was: Definitely not. That perhaps reflected the natural tussle between the instinctive reaction of a protective father and a daughter who cannot wait to grow up. But, as I explained to her, it also comes from years of cycling the Kathmandu roads, not only past my teenage years but something I do occasionally even now. And, as I also told her, even I feel scared to get on a bicycle for the simple reason that the roads are full of Idiots on all manner of conveyances.
Not that there were no Idiots on the roads earlier, but just that there are many, many more of them now. With fines for traffic violations having recently been increased many times over, it looks like our cops are finally getting ready to tackle those Idiots who endanger their lives and others’ by simply getting on the road. For starters, the number of penal offences in the rule book has increased from the earlier 20 to 35.
The planned crackdown of unsafe driving has become all the more pertinent given that roads all across the country have been widened and the Idiots are having a field day. Having more stringent rules is only part of the solution. And, since there are not enough traffic cops, there is only do so much they can do. What is actually required is a concerted campaign to foster safe driving habits, nay, even change those habits, so that everyone can feel safer, whether inching along bumper-to-bumper traffic in Kathmandu or cruising along the highway to Pokhara; navigating a blind spot or just going out for a walk.
Many of the 35 traffic violations will not actually deter the Idiots since their actions generally fall under the purview of what might be called ‘driving carelessly’, which now attracts a fine of Rs1,500 but is very difficult to monitor unless it is clearly laid out what constitutes rash driving. Consider the following idiotic tendencies on the road, and this is without reference to the most egregious Idiots of them all—microbus and taxi drivers.
The first mention has to be of the Idiot who emerges out of side roads like the proverbial bat out of hell without so much as a glance at the traffic on the main road. With wider roads, traffic speed has now increased and many more such Idiots are going to end up in hospital or worse.
Another is the Idiot who waits until visibility goes down to nearly zero before switching on the headlights. For some reason such Idiots believe they are saving on something by driving in the dark and they need some serious re-education. There is then the Idiot who cannot distinguish between a high beam and a low, and, worse, does not do anything about it when alerted about it by flashing headlights from oncoming traffic.
This brings us to the Idiot who flashes headlights on every available occasion, demanding that the road be cleared for her. There is no appreciation of the time-honoured rule that uphill traffic and laden vehicles get right of way, and neither of how fast the oncoming vehicle may be travelling or if it is even possible to move to the side to allow Her Majesty the Flasher easy passage. Back in the days, headlights were flashed to signal: It is rather difficult here, so can you please make way for me? Nowadays, it has mutated into: Make Way For Me. Now!
And often the same Idiot who does not switch on the headlights long past sundown is also the one who flashes to alert others that she is also on the road. That can be a dangerous combination since the flash turns on the high beam, and after dusk this results in momentary blindness. It certainly puts one’s life to risk while one is cruising down to Pokhara.
There is also the Idiot who believes he is safe so long as he honks while taking corners but without precautions such as slowing down or driving as far to the left as possible. The fundamental principle behind blowing the horn in such places is to warn oncoming vehicles to take similar sensible precautions. Once again, the horn serves as: Make Way For Me. And, our Idiot believes that one little toot from his motorcycle will somehow vaporise the oncoming 25-tonne dump truck coming around the bend, with a 20-year-old at the wheel who is not only feeling invincible but also has music blaring to boot.
There is also the Idiot who uses the right-hand trafficator both to pull over to the left and to turn right. And, the Idiot behind who assumes that every time someone uses the right-turn indicator, it is a signal to overtake—on the right.
To name a few more Idiots: The one who has stuff overhanging the length of the vehicle but without the mandatory warning of a red flag in the daytime and a red lamp at night; the one who imagines he is in a race all the time regardless of road conditions; the one who has his hand glued to the horn even in instances such as when traffic has stopped to let people use the zebra crossing; the school bus driver who careens one way or other with toddlers tossed around like dolls; drivers of government vehicles, particularly of the police and the army or those driving the high and might of the land, who do not feel the need to observe any rules, including driving against one-way traffic; the one who uses hazard lights to clear the traffic because he is late for a flight or some other rendezvous; the one texting while driving; the list can go on and on.
One of the ways to reduce the idiocy of drivers is to ensure that the rules are equally sensible. Take the case of the current law that limits driving speeds as follows—car, jeep, van and pick-up: 80kmph; tempo, scooter, power-tiller and tractor: 40kmph; motorcycle: 50kmph; bus, mini-bus, truck and mini-truck: 50kmph in the hills and 70kmph in the Tarai. By this token alone, the government should become quite rich by simply fining those who break the speed limit, which would be almost everyone.
On the other hand, the same law then says that any vehicle can drive at a speed of 40kmph in areas of dense settlements. Considering that even at a speed of 30kmph, it takes around 40 feet for a car to come to a complete halt in emergency situations, that is too long a distance in a situation where pedestrians share the road either because there is no sidewalk, the existing sidewalks are taken up by overflowing shops, or because they just feel like it. Driving would become much safer by posting more sensible speed limits all around, and enforcing these with fines as well as suspension of licences for repeat offenders. Just as relevant would be the rule around zebra crossings. What is the point of painting the road with white stripes if there is nothing to bring traffic periodically to a halt to enable people to cross the road?
I cannot help make one last but related observation. The Kathmandu traffic police recently procured a number of Enfield 500cc motorcycles to chase down traffic offenders. The police were probably impressed by the heft of the bike to think it would make for an ideal police motorcycle. Enfield must have had a very good team to be able to push that sale, for that is probably the last bike you want for a rapid response team. I should know. I have ridden one for 15 years now.