Delhi drives too close for comfort, speed and safety

Bumper-to-bumper traffic jams in Delhi is fraying residents’ nerves.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2018 15:39 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Delhi traffic,Delhi traffic jams,Delhi road rage
Rush-hour traffic in Delhi, where four persons are killed in road accidents every day.(Raj K Raj/ HT file photo)

A big advantage of not working nine-to-five is that you get to beat the rush hour traffic. But the last few months, I have been driving into jams even during lean traffic hours.

It starts with receding traffic speed. In no time, I hit a bumper-to-bumper jam. One looks out for the usual suspects: a broken-down vehicle, a collision, a road repair or police barricading. But as I crawl my way out of the backup, I find no such obstruction. The choked road clears up suddenly and the traffic flows smoothly again.

The mathematicians at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have explained this curious road behaviour as “phantom jams”. In a study published in 2009, they said that small disturbances — a driver hitting the brake too hard or getting too close to another car — could quickly cause “full-blown, self-sustaining traffic jams” on a road carrying a heavy volume of cars.

Blaming such snarls on tailgating or “riding the tailpipe” of the car in front by driving too close, another team of researchers, also from MIT, suggested a solution in a study released in December 2017. Maintaining an equal distance between cars on either side — an approach described as “bilateral control” — could allow drivers reach destinations twice as quickly. This is what birds do while flying in a flock.

The MIT professors, according to Live Science, are now working with a car manufacturer to make changes in the existing adaptive cruise control systems, which will use forward-facing sensors to judge the distance to the vehicle ahead. As Americans modify their cars to rid their cities of ghost jams, India could start by acknowledging that tailgating is a serious driving offence.

Road experts prescribe the two-second rule: a driver should ideally stay at two seconds or one car length behind the vehicle directly in front of their car. This gives just about enough time to stop or manoeuvre the vehicle if the one in the front suddenly applies the brake.

On Delhi roads, a car halting suddenly or turning without signalling is a common menace. Even if you tamely maintain a minimum following distance, you can never trust the car behind you. Such tight-spacing of vehicles is, in fact, considered a road-maximising technique. Try maintaining some gap, you’ll soon find a vehicle squeezing in.

Analysing 100 cases of road rage registered by Delhi police, a research published by Central Road Research Institute in 2013 found that after speeding and overtaking, driving too close was the most common reason — as many as 25% of the cases — why drivers broke into physical fights.

Tailgating is also responsible for rear-end crashes. In many countries, including the United States, Germany and Australia, it is a Class 1 misdemeanour leading to heavy fines, suspension of licences and even a jail term. In India, there are currently no specific laws against such violations. But, if they want, the police can still act against this driving menace under Section 177 of the Motor Vehicle Act that allows them to prosecute any traffic offence that goes against the spirit of the law.

The new Road Safety bill, which awaits final approval in the Rajya Sabha, doesn’t list tailgating as an offence either. But it broadens the definition of dangerous driving beyond the standard signal jumping to now include driving against the flow of traffic and passing or overtaking any vehicle and increases the penalty from R 1,000 to R 5,000 and even throws in provisions for a jail term. Once notified, the states will be allowed to tweak the rules to add more offences.

A law is only as good as its enforcement. At their current strength, our cops already have their hands full dealing with cases of speeding and drunk driving. In comparison, few are penalised for jaywalking, lane jumping, overtaking without indication or even tailgating.

In Delhi where on an average four persons are killed in road accidents every day, this leniency is unwittingly turning our drivers into potential killers. Never mind the phantom jams, the lost work hours, the wasted fuel, the rising tempers and the tailpipe emissions fouling up the city’s air.

First Published: Apr 02, 2018 15:39 IST