A few weeks back, I saw a woman driving through rush-hour traffic on the Nizamuddin Bridge with a child nestled between her right leg and the door. She changed gears frequently, swerved and switched lanes in her light brown Honda Civic while talking to and cuddling the child, who somehow stood in the little space between the driver’s seat and the accelerator, facing the window.
It was a precarious arrangement and I twitched each time her car drew closer to mine. But she seemed unconcerned. I even thought of taking her photo and posting it on the Delhi Traffic Police’s Facebook page but could not muster the courage to use my mobile phone camera and steer the wheel at the same time.
I am sure the young mother had her reasons. There was probably nobody at home to take care of the child. Or perhaps the boy had to be taken to a doctor and she could not find anybody to accompany her. Evidently, she thought it was cruel to leave a crying child buckled to the backseat. But her solution could have been suicidal for both.
Millions of mothers in nuclear families all over the world face similar constraints. Yet, in most western countries, kids below a certain age are not allowed in the front seat and child seats are mandatory. Though the Indian Motor Vehicle Act has no such provisions, I believe holding a child while driving will be considered dangerous driving under the law. Anyway, it just defies common sense.
Inexplicably though, most parents seem to believe that holding a child close to one’s body is good enough protection. So mothers carry babies in their arms while riding pillion. Fathers make children stand between their arms while driving scooters, a common stunt on our roads that probably inspired that woman in her sedan. I am sure each of them has a reason for crossing the line. But is it worth the risk?
The Sikh community reasoned that their religion forbade them to put on any headgear other than a turban and the Delhi government in the mid-1990s exempted Sikh men and all women (since it was difficult to differentiate between a Sikh and a non-Sikh woman) from wearing helmets. Many non-Sikh women took the opportunity to trade safety for their hairstyle or the convenience of not buying and carrying a helmet. Last year, of the 47 women killed in two-wheeler accidents, 42 were riding pillion and most of them were without helmets. In 2010, 48 women died in similar accidents.
Yet, most of us on Delhi roads find an excuse to put lives at risk. Some want to save a few minutes by speeding and jumping signals. Some feel too macho to accept that alcohol affects their reflexes or consider it sissy to get a driver or call for a cab to be dropped home. Others simply take chances when they don’t see a cop on the road.
Since nothing seems to deter us but heavy penalties, the Delhi Police have focused on better enforcement of traffic laws, issuing at least 800 tickets every day. As per records, nearly 50% of those prosecuted for drunk driving in the first six months of this year were below 30 years of age. More than 25% of them had college degrees and a majority was caught from upmarket areas of South Delhi.
Clearly, these are not ignorant drivers. Their recklessness is perhaps explained only by a loss of imagination so symptomatic of the time we live in. Preoccupied with the immediate, we seldom let the potential consequences of our actions cross our mind. In life, a moment of awakening usually offers a second chance. On road, it often gets death.