Driving on the new highways

April 19, 2007

Indian highways have long been very dangerous; narrow and ill-lit, with a variety of vehicles jostling for space, it was sheer luck that the number of accidents were far less than one would expect.

And then, recently, the new highways began to be built. Multilane marvels that would make the highways a much safer and faster place to move from town to town.

But alas, reality is different. Yes, the world-class roads have arrived. But without the world-class rules that go with them, all that has happened is that the danger factor has actually increased.

On a narrow road, people have got used to shifting from right to left to right again, trying to overtake the slow vehicle in front and get ahead. And as the highway gets used while it is under construction, vehicles get used to driving both ways on one side of the highway. After the construction is over, however, this habit does not disappear; and the result is that on the highway, one can be doing over a 100 kph when suddenly one is faced by a bullock cart, a cycle, a car or a truck, coming down the wrong way, full tilt, and a head-on collision is only avoided by one’s constant alertness. Most of the public vehicles are driven by untrained, ill-educated people who do not know about the dangers they face, and the dangers they put others to, by their way of driving, of getting ahead at all costs.

Lane discipline is essential to multilane highways, but Indians have yet to realize this. As one moves out of the city on to the highway, one finds vehicles on every part of the road, and needs to continously weave in and out of them to make some progress. This method not only slows down traffic with its random nature, but also adds to the risk of an accident.

Several slow-moving vehicles like trucks have long been in danger of getting mired in the soft mud at the side of the old roads. Now, on the new highways, they continue to hug the crown of the road.

Other vehicles which want to overtake them are sometimes old and underpowered themselves. This results in a long-drawn-out overtaking procedure during which one can do nothing but coast along slowly and wait one’s turn.

Then there is the problem of commercial vehicles which are overloaded. Which one of us has not had the nerve-racking experience of following a truck which is leaning dangerously with an overload of goods, or which has its load sticking out on both sides? Or having things like pipes and rods sticking out for yards behind the vehicle, waiting to impale the unwary motorist behind?

On a slightly different note, the felling of hundreds of trees may have been necessary for the widening of the roads, but the beauty of the old tree-lined avenues has gone permanently. All those promises of ten saplings for every tree cut…where are the saplings? How long will they survive? Will they grow freely the way the old majestic trees did? The neems, the mangoes, the tamarinds…how lovely it was to stop under their deep shade and eat and drink outdoors. To be fair, the new practice of planting colourful bougainvillea on the dividers makes for a colourful scene, and the hardy plants will thrive with little attention…but it’s just not the same as the shady lovely highways that we used to drive (much more slowly) on.

Oh well, nostalgia dates one immediately…and we do need wider and wider roads to accomodate the hundreds of new vehicles that the RTO is licencing daily. But all these vehicles and motorists seem totally unaware of even simple road rules sometimes….

Unless we realize that the new multilane highways require rules and driving techniques very different from those used on the old narrow roads, the increasing speeds of traffic will, instead of enabling faster transportation, only result in more terrible accidents. In the old days, because of the slow speeds, a collision because of flouting the highway driving rules might mean just dents and injuries; in today’s high-speed scenario, death stares a motorist in the face at all times on Indian highways, where there are no speed limits, no enforcement of lane discipline, or any regulation about the kind of vehicles that can use the highways.