Highways in India...

April 28, 2011

I feel that highway driving in India has always been hazardous, and it continues to be so. Earlier, highways were single-lane roads, and it was, obviously, dangerous having the oncoming traffic, and the oncoming headlights, coming at you under all kind of conditions…night driving, rain, and so on. One slip on the part of an oncoming vehicle could mean disaster, no matter how careful one was as a driver.

Now, we have multilane highways…with grade separators, and wide dividers, too. These dividers have been planted with shrubs and even short trees so that oncoming headlights do not bother one during night driving.

But a lack of enforcment of the basic rules of highway driving continues to keep our highways dangerous…and in fact, I’d say, the danger of highway driving has actually increased, because the speeds have increased phenomenally, without commensurate increase in the safety precautions one must take at such speeds.

The first, of course, is that matter of using the safety belts. Most people (even the most educated of us) do not think it necessary to wear safety belts in their cars while travelling; this is the usual “It won’t happen to ME” attitude. In fact, I was travelling with one driver who, after turning on to the highway, quickly unbuckled his seat belt, remarking, with relief: “Now there are no police to catch me!” We had to explain to him that it was not a matter of rules, but one of safety. Of course, most buses and lorries on the road don’t possess this safety feature at all…and many commercial vans continue to overload their vehicles with passengers, and drive with the side or back doors open, with one or more people hanging out!

At long last (several years overdue!) I do see highway police…well, mostly on the elevated stretch of highway between Bangalore city and the outlying Electronics City (where a speed limit of 80 kph is posted). I did find, once, highway police in Tamil Nadu.

However, for the most part, speed limits are something that no user on the highway bothers about. Everyone speeds as much as s/he can….and I have several times watched two egotistical drivers have a speed race that endangers them and everyone else on the road.

Another major hazard factor on our highways is the very mixed traffic that, of course, is a feature on all Indian roads! It’s so normal to find a Lamborghini speeding past a bullock-cart…having decrepit old lorries struggling along the road…and that brings me to two further problems.

In the old days, highways (or “trunk roads, as they were called…I remember the historic Grand Trunk Road, but that’s another post!) were just mud and soil at the sides, which would mire the tyres, and hence trucks and buses tended to hog the crown of the road. But on today’s highways, the old practice results in slow, lumbering trucks blocking up the centre lane, which is the fast lane. When you add other trucks lumbering along on the other lanes, you get a scenario in which other vehicles have to keep weaving in and out of the lanes, in a manner that both wastes time, and adds to the dangers of driving. And when we have one old lorry trying to overtake another, the painfully protracted period while the two lorries are abreast, is one where other vehicles just have to slow down considerably, and wait.

The design of exits and entrances to the highway is another hazard factor. Though the entrance/exit on the highway, and the break in the median, are kept at a distance from each other for safety reasons, in real life, most vehicles try to go from the entrance to the median (often the wrong way on the highway) instead on going onwards and taking a “U” turn. This results in a major danger to oncoming traffic. On the Bargur stretch of the Bangalore-Chennai highway, there are hardly any breaks in the median, and so, to avoid going round a long way, vehicles (and motorcyclists) tend to just go along on the wrong side…a truly horrific sight to see as one travels at highway speeds.

Posting plentiful signs on the highway, reminding users of the rules, cannot, alone, result in better driving and highway practices. There has to be an active highway police force..which enforces the rules impartially, does not take bribes to let offenders go, and also makes sure jaywalkers do not cross over the highway by climbing the medians. With the political will to enforce our laws, we could have far safer highways than we do at present.