On April 4, four days before he turned 18, a teenager reportedly took his father’s Mercedes out for a spin. Siddharth Sharma, a 32-year-old student, was crossing Sham Nath Marg in north Delhi when the speeding sedan hit him. Flung into the air, Sharma did not survive the impact.
Later, police records revealed that there were four cases of traffic violations in the last eight months involving the Mercedes in question. The car driver jumped the red light, sped beyond permissible limit and parked the car illegally. The last violation before the accident that killed Sharma was dangerous driving.
The police have established the involvement of the boy, now an adult, in one of these cases. But, evidently, whoever else was driving the expensive sedan on the other three occasions didn’t care much for driving regulations or road safety.
The nominal fine of Rs 100 is all one pays for violations that cause 60% of all road fatalities in India. The penalty has remained unchanged since 1988. The new road transport and safety Bill, which seeks tougher penalties for traffic offences, including a jail term, has been pending before the Union cabinet since 2014.
In last week’s hit-and-run case, the police have apprehended the teenager’s father on charges of abetment to culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The teenager has been arrested and sent to a juvenile home. But the police want to hold the father responsible for the son’s action.
Driving is rarely associated with the responsibility that it is. So life is an adventure on the road. It gets boring if you signal while turning or changing lanes. Weaving through traffic is an art. Tailgating or driving too close to the vehicle in front — a serious traffic offence in most parts of the world — is an appreciated road space maximisation technique in this city of nine million vehicles.
Most drivers on Delhi roads find an excuse to put lives at risk. Some want to save a few minutes by speeding and jumping signals. Some are too macho to accept that alcohol slows down their reflexes. They consider it sissy to get a driver or call a cab after downing one too many. Others simply take chances when they don’t see a policeman on the road.
It is not a generational problem. You find men and women from different age groups breaking road regulations with impunity. It is an inheritance: the art of bad driving proudly passed on from one generation to another.
Many parents don’t even consider the possible consequences of handing over keys to their cars and two-wheelers to their children before they turn 18, the legal age for driving a motorised vehicle in India. Some even put their children on their lap and let them steer the wheel. They tell you proudly how their five-year-olds can drive a distance even though their legs don’t reach the accelerator. In many countries, children below a certain age are not even allowed to sit in the front seat.
Rash, loud and fast driving is a tradition. Motorists are contemptuous of even the basic road rules — changing lanes only after signalling, not driving too close to the vehicle ahead of you, using the horn only when necessary — seen as unnecessary western imports. Tailgating is not even an offence in India.
Anyway, few are penalised here for driving offences that are considered minor. Every act of such leniency contributes to the general sense of impunity responsible for so many hit-and-run cases. The government can’t dither. It must take a call on stricter laws and exemplary penalties to ensure road safety and protect life.
It takes a certain mindset to put the pedal to the metal and burn rubber on a busy city road. It’s the same mindset that bets on power and money to get away with anything, the mindset that devalues everything else, including human life. It’s that chronic sickness Delhi has to find a cure for.