It was one of those bizarre moments you could come across.
This guy on a scooter, moving against the flow of traffic, is coming right at you on the sidewalk. They gesture in panic and anger. He slows down and says, “Why are you getting mad at me? I’m not disturbing you at all.”
Even after breaking all traffic rules, he is irritated that someone has accused him of violating the highway code. For him, driving on the sidewalk, i.e. on the wrong side of the road, is normal.
Welcome to the chaos on the streets of Kerala that kills scores of pedestrians and motorists every year.
According to the police, 3,429 people died on our roads in 2021, 1,686 of them on roads other than federal and state roads. The death figures also show that 2,640 were entirely due to human error.
In Kerala, which marvels as India’s best educated state, driving code observance is almost unheard of. Everyone is always in a hurry. The common practice among drivers and passengers is to fight their way through quickly, even on routine journeys.
God help you if your vehicle pulls away a second or two late when the light turns green: the total cacophony of horns from the impatient drivers behind you will blast you out of the way.
Speed is the overwhelming obsession, unaware that the chaos they cause in the race to their destination increases travel time. The goal is to get from A to B as quickly as possible; do not reach their destination in an orderly and safe manner.
The word patience is not in their vocabulary. Filling the smallest gap ahead is the goal when driving, even if it means blocking a lane, ignoring road signs and pedestrian crossings. The fact that pedestrians on the zebra crossing also have the right of way when the pedestrian signal has switched to red is unknown to our drivers.
When driving on the right in our country, the basic rule applies that you may only overtake on the right-hand side of the vehicle in front. But this is more ignored than observed.
News reports often scream about the threat posed by young bikers racing on the streets. But there’s little discussion of more mature drivers and drivers, both male and female, slashing through traffic just to get a few feet ahead at every intersection.
Waiting patiently in the queue would probably pave the way for a smoother process, but in a rush to get ahead of others, most end up creating congestion and increasing risks.
Motorists move in this argumentative way because the law enforcement doesn’t care, and we, the people, tolerate both the law-breaking motorists and the indifferent law enforcement.
The dangers lurking on our roads are already high as potholes pose a threat to any vehicle. If there is one thing that can be described as the current government’s worst performance, it is the deplorable condition of our roads, particularly in the capital.
Leaders of all stripes and officials are making eloquent statements about accelerating road repairs, but very little seems to be changing. Some streets were dug up more than a year ago and are comparable to the bombed streets in Ukraine and Syria.
Senior officials and elected officials, who are entitled to seven-seat, air-conditioned, chauffeur-driven SUVs at taxpayer expense, rarely recognize the state of the roads. Their vehicles are fitted with good suspensions to make driving smooth on potholed roads, unlike the two- or three-wheelers that ordinary people rely on and endure bone-hard commutes on a daily basis.
Perhaps the elected and appointed officials should be mandated to travel by public transport at least once a week to be aware of the plight of citizens. The first-hand experience might rouse them from inaction.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who is leading the Bharat Jodo rally in Kerala, made a remarkable observation. He said that both UDF and LDF are responsible for the bad condition of our roads. But as someone who wants to change things and move the country forward, he missed a golden opportunity to speak out.
Rather than taking up the full width of the road for his rally, he could have set a precedent by sticking to a curb and letting traffic flow. That would have been a sign of a desirable change that Kerala needs.
This type of political rally blocking streets is something the state has seen for a long time. So much has changed over the years, but not the attitude of the political parties.
If this state of the road causes vehicle owners to bang their heads against the wall, think of the less well-off. Being splashed with muddy water as cars screech over potholed roads is the least of the dangers they face.
In rural areas, speeding vehicles, especially private buses, pose a clear hazard to pedestrians, while in cities there is little safe space to walk, as sidewalks often become illegal parking spaces.
But the question to ask is, even if the infrastructure improves, will we be able to get rid of the chaos on the streets in the face of a total lack of street etiquette? The evidence seems to suggest otherwise.
Check out the walking and cycling path provided under the subway line in the Alwaye section. It has been scientifically done with even markings to allow the visually impaired to walk safely. But large parts of it have fallen into disrepair and turned into a rubbish dump and parking lot, forcing pedestrians onto the streets.
The old dictum was that a society gets the government it deserves. In the case of Kerala, it looks like we’re getting the traffic we deserve.