Ten years ago, I applied for a driving licence for the first time. Getting a learner’s was easy. The questions on road signs and signals were fairly easy. Having got the learner’s, I polished my skills for a month and took a formal driving test. Much to my shock, I failed.
The examiner told me I didn’t use indicators early enough to show I was changing lanes. I didn’t see the point. I knew you used it to indicate change of lanes or turning left or right. But I never thought using it a few seconds late could get me disqualified in a driving test. A few months later, I went through the drill all over again to get my licence.
Now, having been driving for a decade, I sometimes wonder if most of my fellow drivers would have passed the scrutiny of my no-nonsense examiner. In fact, the way Delhi drives, I wonder how many of the motorists ever took a driving test at all.
Life is an adventure on Delhi roads. It gets boring if you signal while turning or changing lanes. Weaving through traffic is a proud art. If you can switch lanes like you do in a video game, you have mastered it. Tailgating or driving too close to the vehicle in front — a serious traffic offence in most parts of the world — is a much-appreciated road space maximisation technique in this city of seven million vehicles.
On an average, 800 speeding tickets are issued by the traffic police daily. But few are penalised for “minor offences” such as lane jumping, overtaking, driving without indicators or jumping the yellow line to go into the opposite carriageway. Even if they see it happening, most cops prefer to look away.
Across the world, motorists prefer to drive defensively, giving themselves the space and time to predict a hazardous situation and react appropriately. But Delhi roads are the ultimate testing ground of your reflexes. A car suddenly halting or turning without signaling is a common menace. Even if you are the odd one out, who tamely maintains a minimum following distance, you can never underestimate the car behind you.
Experts across the world prescribe the two-second rule — a driver ideally stays at two seconds or one car length behind the vehicle directly in front of his or her car. This gives just about enough time to stop or manoeuvre the vehicle if the one in front suddenly applies brake. In many countries, tailgating is illegal and punishable by a fine.
In New Jersey, USA, a tailgating ticket could mean serious trouble — a penalty equal to reckless driving or over-speeding. Depending on the circumstances, tailgating could mean a high fine, higher insurance cost, a suspended licence or even a jail term.
But penalties and fines make a difference only when the enforcement is strict. Our cops, with their current strength, already have their hands full dealing with cases of speeding and drunk driving that are a bigger menace. Technology could have substituted boots on the ground. But the much-touted plan for installing CCTVs and speed cameras on busy roads and intersections is still awaiting approvals.
But prosecution alone won’t help. We need to start from the basics and ensure that at least the fresh batch of drivers hitting city roads come with adequate training. We need good driving schools and not fly-by-night operators who function like touts. Mandatory and stricter tests may have a sobering effect. Why not send errant drivers back to driving schools for basic training and ask them to clear the test to reclaim their licences?