Few play baseball in Delhi. There is a club in Rohini but it is rare to find neighbourhood boys playing the American game in the Capital’s colony parks. But most sports stores in the city stock and sell baseball bats every month because it is Delhi’s favourite combat weapon on road. Placed under car seats, it is used to intimidate, thrash or simply smash windscreens for provocation ranging from a minor car-scraping to someone daring to ask for way.
Last December, two college students honked, asking a car to give way on a narrow street in east Delhi. They were beaten mercilessly with a baseball bat the attackers pulled out from the backseat of their car. In March, four similar cases were reported although the combat weapons were different. A brick was used to bludgeon an autorickshaw driver. A medical researcher’s head was smashed with a gear-lock. A driver was shot at and another car was set afire.
We call such violence road rage, a media construct borrowed from the United States (apparently, first used by a Californian news channel to describe a string of freeway shootings in 1987). In India, road rage is not a legal offence and police do not maintain a log of traffic-related assaults. The cases are registered under assault, grievous attack and murder. But 15% of all murders are on instant provocation, such as the refusal of a young man to lend a group of four a screw-driver at an east Delhi mobile phone store that led to his stabbing.
Why are we on such a short fuse? Therapists call it the Intermittent Explosive Disorder, characterised by extreme expression of anger. Academics blame the alienation of the citizens in a soulless city and the natural aggression inbuilt in the so-called north Indian culture. Others find fault with the potholed, congested and noisy roads, even Delhi’s extreme summer.
It is time we stopped considering road rage an aberration. People who behave badly on roads behave badly everywhere. They rightfully elbow other passengers in buses and the metro; push people down from escalators in shopping malls, jump queues, and block stairs. In all situations, they are always ready to break into a fight.
Better roads and traffic conditions are a civic necessity but these cannot resolve a law-and-order issue. Tender counselling will not make a horn-blasting motorist stop changing lanes abruptly. Stringent punishment for violation of traffic rules is the only way to make the Capital’s roads safer.
In Australia’s New South Wales, for example, any person who chases another motorist or intimidates another road user can be charged with predatory driving, a serious offence that land the culprit in jail for up to five years, fined AU$100,000, and be disqualified from driving regardless of whether or not the “road rager” intended to physically harm the victim.
Few are penalised in Delhi for offences such as lane jumping, jaywalking or offensive honking. Many even take their chances with speeding and drunk driving. But there is no alternative for strict enforcement. In Mumbai, lane driving has become a usual practice. Delhi also fell in line for two weeks in October 2010 when jumping lanes attracted a fine of Rs 2000 and traffic cops meant business. No reason why the Capital will not play ball if the cops are game again.