Rakesh Verma (name changed on request) is a media analyst at a think tank in the Capital. A father of two, he is well-educated, mixes well with colleagues and is known for hosting great barbecues during the winters – all in all your regular Joe, without a blemish to distinguish from the many professionals that inhabit the sprawling city of Delhi. He has stopped driving his upmarket hatchback since last May. Ask him why and you get a pained expression, a pause and then a haltingly told tale.
“Till that day, I used to laugh and say that everyone driving slower than me is a moron and everyone faster, a maniac. Then everything changed. I was at one of the red light in Kamla Nagar, when my car AC sputtered and a low whine started. I fiddled with the controls when I heard loud honking from behind me. Though there were two cars in front of me, this person in a Maruti 800 was focusing all his attention on me. As the light turned green and I started to move, a rumbling sound came from the engine and I stopped. The light then turned red again and before I knew what was happening a man started beating on my window and windshield,” recounts Verma.
What transpired then is etched in Verma’s mind. He remembers getting out of his car and scuffling with his attacker. In less than two minutes the fight had turned ugly with another man joining in with a baseball bat. Verma escaped with a broken wrist, two cracked ribs and a concussion on his head. “Some bystanders intervened else I wouldn’t have gotten away with my life,” he says. Verma never informed the police. At his wife’s insistence he hired a driver. “It was the heat that made those people so impatient and irritable. I too reacted the way I did because I was frustrated at the AC and then my car giving me trouble,” he adds.
Most Indians would agree. It’s the heat that drives us mad and adding to our rather pervasive aggressiveness, especially on the roads.
Explaining the phenomena of road rage, Pulkit Sharma, clinical psychologist, VIMHANS, says, “There are many things at play. First is self-esteem, especially in the case of males. On the road you have vehicles speeding by or getting too close, resulting in a feeling of people intruding into your space. This makes us feel like we are losing control and triggers an emotional response. We feel the need to react with a more powerful blow. Then, the other person also feels an attack on his/her self-esteem and retaliates with even more force. The cycle repeats itself and escalation occurs.” This could take the form of verbal or physical violence – something that is far too common on our overcrowded, noisy, polluted and chaotic roads.
Summer just makes things worse, though it is hard to provide hard statistics to prove the point. “Road rage is not tracked because there is specific law for it. Various Indian Penal Codes – depending on the severity of the case – are applied, ranging from aggressive driving, damage to property, assault, grievous assault to attempt to murder. There is really no need for a separate law pertaining to road rage,” says Satyendra Garg, joint commissioner of police – traffic, Delhi Police. Accident statistics do point to increased probability of mishaps during the tough summer months of April, May and June, with National Crime Records Bureau figures for 2010 showing that these months accounted for more than a quarter of all accidents in that year - 122,004 out of a total of 461,757.
Garg however agrees that given the extreme temperatures that Delhi sees during summers, untoward incidents involving people losing control are more likely. “The external atmosphere, particularly for two-wheeler motorists, can be very extreme and the human reaction is to become restless. I would advise people to stay cool and consider the consequences of taking the law into their own hands, and landing in a no-win situation,” he adds. If your vehicle is hit, note down the number and call the police, Garg adds.
Bangalore Police additional commissioner (traffic) MA Saleem says, “Many road rage incidents happen because of stress among vehicle riders or drivers. The busy life of the city provokes people to get involved in such incidents. In my opinion, stressful summers are also one of the reasons. The bottlenecks in city roads, vehicle fumes, the hot sun and increased stress due to urgent work are some reasons that people lose control.”
Sharma adds that any sort of reduction in our comfort levels due to external stimuli can severely lower our anger threshold, increase irritability and make us feel like the world has suddenly gone against us. Heat, dust, fumes, intrusion into personal space, high decibel levels and a potential threat to our safety creates an environment similar to being in a war.
Regret my own impatience
N Raj, Bangalore
I feel very sorry now for assaulting a student, who was on his bicycle near Okulipuram circle near the City Railway station. On the night of March 22, I was driving to the railway station. This boy was on his cycle and going towards Magadi Road in front of me. There was a heavy traffic and I was rushing to catch the Shimoga train. This boy was not allowing me to make a U-turn towards the railway bridge — he was just not getting out of the way. I asked him to move fast but he gestured towards the red signal. An argument started between us and I got so enraged that I hit him on his head. People gathered around us and this resulted in a traffic jam in the area. Personnel from the Upparpet police station came and booked a case against me. My journey to Shimoga never took place, but I was released on bail that very night. I really should not have hit that boy for such a silly reason. (name changed on request)
Years later, scars remain
Shraddha Shah, Mumbai
I haven’t been able to forget June 6, 2009. It was especially hot and humid. The car AC was struggling and the traffic was crawling as I approached Bandra. I was trying to edge past a Skoda sedan when my car’s bumper scrapped its side. I then heard a loud whack as the driver, a burly, heavyset man tried to open the driver’s side door and step out. My car was blocking his exit and he couldn’t get out. I got very scared because he kept on banging his car door on my car. He must have caused more damage to his car than I would have initially. As the traffic eased, I moved forward and the man was able to get out of the car. He banged his fists on my car window, screaming obscenities, while I tried to get away. He then picked up a stone and flung it at the window, shattering the glass. The flying glass cut my hand and face, though not severely. But it was enough to scare me and I cowered, dreading what would happen next. By that time, people around us reacted and the guy got scared, got into his car and drove away, but not before hitting a scooter. His loss of control must have done more damage to his car than my simple mistake.
Mind the anger
* Though no specific research in India linking summers to a road rage, studies of increased stress caused by high temperatures abound. Here’s how to beat your instinct to hit out in the heat:
* Carry a cool drink or water. Pulkit Sharma, clinical psychologist, VIMHANS, says this simple precaution can help us give us a feeling control over our environment and make us feel nurtured and more at peace with the world.
* Get in touch with your feelings. If you feel low or frustrated, it’s good to stop driving wherever you can get something cool to eat or drink, says Sharma. Acceptance is the first step towards being in control. Take responsibility for your mood.
* If someone is being aggressive with you, be the stronger one and allow the other person to express themselves, says Sharma. Our cultural context creates an image, especially for men, where the aggressor is idealised. The one who stays silent, chooses not to react is considered a wimp. But strength lies in restraint, in having control over one’s triggers, Sharma points out.
* Distract yourself. If you start to feel irritated by the way someone is driving, switch on music that you like and actively participate in it – sing along, hum, drum your fingers etc. Anger is a thought and a thought can be changed, adds Sharma.