On India’s roads, there's a scary surge of rage

  • Samar Halarnkar
  • Updated: Aug 26, 2015 23:34 IST

It is always heartening to see the undulating stream of walkers and runners winding around Richards Park in East Bangalore every morning. Most walk around the park--the one-way traffic helps--because the Rain-tree-shaded patch of green is too small to hold them all. Women in tights, hijabs and sarees. Men in track pants and pyjamas. Teenagers in knee-length shorts and headphones. Children trot alongside parents. Older men in mufflers doff their hats to women they know, a trait of a time gone by.

What isn't quite as heartening is how the walkers are terrorised by traffic barrelling against the one way. Everyone breaks the law, from families with docile children in cars to rowdy young men whooping and doing wheelies on souped-up motorcycles and scooters stripped of their silencers. An accident is a matter of time and luck.

Much as I try, I often find it hard to ignore the law-breakers and stay focussed on my morning run. I plead, lecture and shout. The only response is belligerence.

"This is a one-way sir," I shouted earlier this week at a car dangerously rounding a bend and scattering a bunch of children. The car halted. "What is your concern?" screamed the livid middle-aged driver, accompanied by his wife and little children. As I prepared to walk across the street, he accelerated away, followed by four more violators, one in a car, two on motorcycles. A policeman on patrol stopped next to me and impassively watched.

The next day, I stopped running and shouted at two young men who came up the street at high speed, scattering frightened older walkers and an old woman who cowered fearfully. They stopped immediately, parked their scooters in the middle of the road and walked to me enraged. My attempts at pointing to the people they were scaring only made them angrier. An eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation ensued. A crowd of onlookers quickly gathered--and as is now routine--no one intervened, no one said a word. Finally, one of the young men backed off, as did I.

The family is concerned that my attempts to discipline such violators could easily degenerate into violence. I accept this is a real threat, and as I walk or drive on India's increasingly crowded and lawless urban streets, it is hard not to feel this ever-present menace. There are no statistics on road rage specifically, but anecdotal reportage indicates a tide of road rage over trivial incidents. That violators are at fault is irrelevant, and no one is spared, not even the police.

Delhi Assistant Commissioner of Police Amit Singh landed in hospital with a fractured nose and head injuries 11 months ago when an underage car driver and his family--the teen crashed his car into Singh's--attacked the off-duty officer with steel knuckle-dusters and stones. Singh was the third officer to be attacked that week, and it is reasonably common for officers to be bashed, even killed, by road-ragers. Common folk have little chance of escaping the rage, and the brutality is, sometimes, stunning. What kind of people beat a man to death in front of his young daughters because he protests his scooter being scraped by their rashly driven car?

Potential road ragers commonly carry iron rods and hockey sticks in cars. Whether this is for protection or to bash in someone's brains appears to depend on the circumstances. A friend--an otherwise calm, smiling father of two--in Mumbai does not leave home without a baseball bat in his car's trunk.

It wasn't this way, until even two decades ago. Indian cities were never paragons of traffic virtue, but there are those in once-calmer cities, such as Bangalore and Mumbai, who recall a time when people rarely honked, obeyed the rules and abided by that now-mystifying Western invention called lane driving.

What has changed? Traffic congestion is a prime reason. The number of accidents has soared--a person dies every four minutes on India's roads--but given the rise in population and vehicle ownership, you might argue this is inevitable. A more reliable parameter is the people killed along every 10,000 km of road: That went up nearly 2.5 times over four decades since 1971, according to a ministry of road transport and highways report. The data also reveal that in nearly eight of 10 cases, the driver is at fault.

Crowding, as psychologists note, causes aggression. Earlier this year, the Delhi High Court even appointed an amicus curae--a special lawyer--to find out the reasons for growing road rage. Road rage is not an Indian phenomenon alone. Western sociologists point to a breakdown in community values, and psychologiststalk about the "intoxicating" feeling of power and anonymity offered by a modern automobile. An American psychologist has said that road-ragers are "selfish, power-hungry, angry and vindictive".

All of these reasons apply to India, a country in the deep, unsettling throes of transition. Indian women are the most stressed in the world, according to a 2011 Nielsen report, and economically strained Indian men tend to be violent.

Finally, we must consider general Indian indiscipline, the we-are-like-that-only phenomenon. India's roads may be congested and its drivers stressed, but double the number of people died on India's roads than on China's, which has nearly 100 million more people and many more vehicles, a 2013 Indian government report noted. As Indian road deaths soared 41% in five years (from 2005), China's fell by a third.

It is hard to see a solution for road rage. Sometimes, I find a little humour on both sides helps. I once spotted a family enroute to Sunday mass in a car headed against the one-way around my little park. "You're going to church and still breaking the law!" I shouted, shaking my head. The man leaned out and replied: "Don't worry, I will ask for forgiveness."

Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit. The views expressed are personal.

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