Have you often wondered whether driving in Mumbai, or for that matter most places in India, is a bit like being ambushed? You start out all peaceful and the sun mostly shining only to find your path laden with savages who seem intent on doing grievous bodily harm to you and your vehicle by intent or sheer stupidity?
You're not alone. I suspect most of us feel that. On an average I drive close to 50 kms a day from Bandra to Nariman Point and back. Sometimes I have to hoof it to Andheri for a client meeting and then the distance goes up by a dozen or so kilometers. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a nervous driver, a new one, or someone who finds driving a chore. I love driving, not just highway driving or Sunday driving, but almost any kind of driving. After I've got an automatic gearbox, driving has become a breeze.
Even then, my blood reaches a boiling point many times a day while driving. So in true planner mode, I decided to pull back from my boiling self and analyse this. Why was a more or less sane, rational individual given to fits of near insanity and almost violence most of the times I took the wheel? To start with I headed to the nub of the problem - the irritants. I first listed down what bugged me the most. I classified them by the type of driving behaviour exhibited that raised my hackles and I dare say you might find some resonance here. Bear in mind that this is much deeper than a couple of extended FGDs. It’s more like a very long (15 years almost) ethnography. So do rest all doubts about sample size, regional bias, etc... and here goes an attempt at segmenting the irritants.
The Indicator Watcher: This is a person who is happy to coast along leaving enough space in front of him or her for a convoy to pass. However, the moment you indicate your barely nascent intention of turning into his lane, no sooner has it occurred as a fleeting thought bridging the synapses of your neurons, this chap galvanises into life. Honking and accelerating as if his life depended on it, he barrels himself into the gap and gives you a stare of righteous indignation. You sheepishly get back into your lane and wait for the myriad of followers to pass before you attempt another maneuver with probably the same results. The best part is that the 'Indicator Watcher' makes you feel guilty that you dared to even think of such a trespass.
The reverse light hypnotised: This category extends not only to vehicles but also pedestrians. Feeling lonely? Not a soul in sight? Try to reverse your car. No sooner than the reverse light appears, men, women, children, vehicles and animals will want to cross from behind your car. Even people who would have crossed from front now want to make a beeline for the behind of your car. Especially adept at this are motorcycles and autorickshaws. They squeeze into impossible gaps, approach at breakneck speeds and make reversing a nightmare. Go forth, they say and look not behind.
The horny honker: Have horn will use. Liberally. Now I don't have a problem with using the horn. After all it is essential equipment, especially in India. However, it’s the impractical use of the horn that boggles my mind. You're stuck in a traffic jam 10 cars deep and at the mouth of the jam is an argument between two motorists. What do people do? Instead of going out to see what its about, they will honk. The guy behind you will blare his horn, 11 cars away from the action scene. Perhaps they think if horns were to be relayed, the accident victim can hear them faster and louder. Perhaps they think that the sound of their horn will fly over your head and reach directly at the site. Perhaps they do not think. At all.
You flash me yours, I'll flash you mine: What is it about flashing lights that people cannot get? The moment I flash my lights indicating that I wish to cross or pass or that they should wait if there is no space for both cars. Instead I get a flash back. Its almost like 'Oho! You think you're the only with a dipper switch? I'll show you!' This invariably ends up with both of us stuck fender to fender and no one wanting to give way. And heaven help you if it’s a taxi in front. The entire meaning of lights itself is lost on most taxi drivers.
The 40 kmph right lane owner: Nostalgia has its value. Especially if you're talking about highway driving. I remember when the Mumbai Pune Expressway was in its infancy, people used to follow rules about lanes and overtaking. The right lane was a sacred space, one where you did not stick around for too long. Do your overtaking business and fold back into the middle lane. Now it’s the bloody reverse. If you want to overtake then head for the extreme left lane. Maybe the country's gone the American way as a means to show solidarity with Obama. But there is no way you can overtake on the right lane. It is now the preserve of the slowest moving traffic. I once nearly went insane honking a Maruti 800 out of the right lane on the Expressway. Did he budge? No! And the best part is the driver doesn't even realise that he's in the wrong. Across highways now, you might find the right lane the domain of the slow of rpm and there is precious little you can do about it except to practice your left lane maneuvering.
The law enforcer / breaker: Rules do not seem to be meant for those who make them. The law is above the law. Richly oxymoronic. How many times have you seen cops go by without helmets, talking on the phone while driving, making illegal turns, breaking signals or getting into one-ways? It’s not that they're on duty and in pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. He's dead. So they couldn't be. They do it because they feel they can! And every time a cop does that in front of you, you feel the pain of having shelled out a fine for precisely the same act, now being done with impunity under your very own nose.
The autorickshaw BMW: If it’s an expensive car, especially if it’s from the big 4 stable, then it must be a gentleman on the road, right? You couldn't have been more wrong. A driver (I'm deliberately not using 'chauffeur') driven BMW, Audi, Merc, etc... is as good as an autorickshaw or a taxi. Maybe I'm not entirely correct. When the owner is not inside then it's actually death on wheels. It’s like a glistening cobra that mesmerises you and before you know it, it has forced you off the road or caused you to hypnotically, almost crash into something else. That’s because while you're admiring the beauty of the vehicle and wondering if there ever will be a time when you get your hands on one, you don't realise it is being piloted by a maniac. A person who has been given unlimited power (some of these cars have 4, 2 litre engines. That’s 3 Honda City cars put together almost) and almost no training on how the driver should manage it. My motto is very simple. Beware of the three pointed star. It could impale you!
So why does this happen?
There could be many more segments and would I love to hear what people have come up against. Putting on my planning hat, in the gap that my blood cools down enough to let me wear one, I couldn't help but think what makes otherwise ordinary well meaning folk change into their evil alter egos when they grip a steering wheel or a handlebar? A lot of it can be traced back to the evolutionary beginnings of how our brains were formed. Here are a couple of perspectives:
The innate desire to stay ahead. In a city like Bombay, we are always jostling for space. An inch given is never returned, in fact a yard is asked for. Perhaps that is why self-preservation overrides charity. When I indicate to turn into a lane, the current inhabitant feels that if he lets me in then perhaps my entire family will follow leaving him inexorably delayed. Nothing like this happens but the panic is real and the feeling of loss is even more real. Men are built to stay ahead. It’s hardwired into our primitive brain, the cortex. Because if you're behind, then you don't get dinner. In fact, you might become dinner. So staying ahead is innate to men and that is almost reflex.
In Rome, do as the Romans. People adapt. Both to good and bad. That is why Indians follow pedestrian crossings when they're abroad and break red light signals when they're back home. In some ways, we are perhaps emboldened by the fact that this is the way it is in India. It would be foolish and impractical to expect people to be orderly. After all isn't India the land of the fuzzy logic? The land of adjustment and definitely not the land of rational human beings. At least not on the roads.
Following the herd makes good sense because safety used to be in numbers in the earlier days. Without the herd, chances of survival was bleak. There was the hostile environment, danger from animals and lots of other imponderables that were best tackled in a group. When driving also, not only do you get left out and risk ostracism (read angry honking behind you and muttered curses) but you also risk danger. Someone might bang into you because he never expected you to stop at that red light. No one ever does!
In fact, it's like mob psychology. Notice if you come to a red light and stop, chances are that others will draw up and stop with you but if you lead the way in breaking the signal you will get at least a couple of followers (depending on conditions of course; size of signal, presence of cops, etc...). This is basically because of the signaling that its ok to do this because my neighbour is doing it. The bigger the car that breaks the signal the more likely others are to follow it. And again, evolutionary science tells us that the leader of the pack, the larger stronger male is safe to follow as he will clear the path for the rest. Which I also why, tailing VIP vehicles through red lights is seen as a smart way to beat the rush.
The woman driver bit has been researched to death. Actually, I feel that whether it be a man or a woman, you need to enjoy driving. If you take it as a chore, then the tension will show. The posture, as a fellow planner pointed out, is a dead giveaway. Hunched forward, both hands gripping the steering wheel, left side mirror folded in… all these are signs of a defensive driver. Be it a woman or a man, you would be well advised to stay clear because here is someone for whom driving is a bother and they just want to get done with it. They drive because they have no choice.
The extension of the car as your physical presence: The author Julius Fast of Body Language talks about how men especially treat the car as an extension of themselves. In some ways, this explains why you wouldn't like another car tail-gating you, it's uncomfortable to have someone stand so close to you and infringe on your personal space. It also explains the care men bestow on their cars. It’s like keeping yourself clean or wearing nice clothes. Despite popular notions, most men like to do that.
So perhaps some of this would explain why we ourselves do exactly what we detest in the driving habits of others. Maybe not often but we do end up on the other side of the road sometimes.
Is there a solution? So is it all fate? Are we doomed to drive like this and cut our youth short with hyper-tension? Perhaps. But then again, I’ve observed a few things that could restore sanity. Not sure if it’s a fail-safe rule, but it has mostly worked with me.
The first and foremost one is communication: If you're at a crossing and not sure who has right of way, gesticulate. Make it personal. Show a hand, a nod of your head asking to pass first -- 99 per cent of the time, it will work. Most misunderstandings happen due to lack of communication. Any Shakespearean tragedy will tell you that. Hero thinks the lover is dead. He goes and kills many and himself, lover comes back to find a bloodbath and kills herself. Now, you know why telephones were invented. Even in a car, communication works wonders and solves problems even before they start. Perhaps this is because on the road, the intentions of the other party are not clear and therefore we tend to behave like we are in a prisoner’s dilemma. Communication helps solve that. We see clearly what the other party's intention is and then act accordingly. No ambiguity, no road rage.
The second one is politeness. I’ve seen this hugely under rated quality work wonders. Give the benefit of doubt. Be generous. Do not assume that every other person on the road is an offspring of unwed parents who is out to extract personal vendetta from you. If someone wants to make a sudden U-turn be a bit understanding, maybe there is an emergency. If you must show disapproval, shrug your shoulders and gesture why with your hand. In most cases that will bring a sheepish apology from the other party. Something that calling their ancestry into doubt would not have quite managed.
Neurologically, I think politeness is a strong signal that the other person is not aggressive and therefore is of no danger to oneself. This automatically leads to us lowering our guard and then possibilities of aggression become much less. It works the same way in animals, dogs, cats, lions, roll over on their backs to show that they do not mean aggression and the situation gets diffused. While we may not be able to roll over in the middle of a highway, a smile will do almost as well.
Like I said, this is definitely not prescriptive and I am yet to figure out despite knowing all this why do I behave just like the stereotypes I have mentioned? But for that I’ll have to write another blog post.
(The author is the executive director, planning, Lowe Lintas)