December 24, 2005

Drivers, Roads, Rules and Police

-By Syed Hussain El-Edroos, E-mail:

Those of us who are above 45 years, would recall the good old days when even riding a cycle without a light was considered an offence subject to a challan. In 1971 when I left to study in the US, traffic was reasonably good. When I returned back to Pakistan in 1979, I was so stunned by the chaotic traffic conditions, that for the first few months I didn’t even get behind the steering wheel. Today the traffic conditions have deteriorated even further especially in the cities, the exception being the G.T. Road & the Motorways. According to recent newspaper reports accident fatalities in Pakistan are 10 times the number in the US.  For every 3.3 fatalities per 10,000 vehicles in the US, the fatality rate is 33 in Pakistan. We must ask why is this so?  What can be done to change things? Are we so self centred that we don’t care what happens to others? Do we ever calculate the time and fuel wasted because of horrible traffic conditions? If we carry on like this, all Pakistanis need to realize that there is a strong probability, we or our friends and relatives may be involved in an accident one day.

Like most facets of Pakistani life, driving instead of improving over time is getting worst. The main reason being that most drivers, appear to be unfamiliar with the traffic rules. Everyday one sees drivers breaking red lights, turning suddenly without using indicators, overtaking from the left, turning right when there is traffic coming from the front, speeding on a crowded road, under age drivers who can barely see over the dashboard, wagon drivers, lady drivers and truck drivers who drive as if they own the road, badly maintained vehicles that breakdown and block traffic, lane discipline not being followed, motorcycles zig zaging in and out of traffic. I could go on indefinitely as there are so many examples. To me, some of the worst offenders are drivers of vehicles with green or military number plates. Some of these drivers think that they are above the law. Worst, the Traffic Police are reluctant or hesitant to challan these offenders. Maybe they feel it is a waste of time. However, the fact remains that the civil administration and the military should be the ones setting a good example. As most people would be aware, getting a driving license is “fairly easy”. I can bet 80% of drivers have not read the Highway Code. What they know about “traffic rules” is what they see the older drivers doing.

The next thing that causes traffic problems are the roads. They are poorly maintained. A case in point are trenches that are dug up to lay water, Sui or telephone lines are not properly filled. The traffic is forced to slow down, resulting in damage to the suspension of the vehicle or rear end accidents. Traffic lights do not work or are not synchronized. If you drive down Kashmir Road in the Saddar, you will have to stop at each of the intersections as the traffic lights turn red before you get to them. Road development is not keeping up with the volume of traffic. Except for the Faizabad and Motorway Interchanges and the underpass at Committee Chowk, there are no other underpasses or over passes in the Rawalpindi- Islamabad area. I visited Amman, Jordan about eight times from 1972 to 1995, and every time I saw new under passes and overpasses and even a tunnel. Also that time and fuel could be saved. Sometime back we heard that an overhead road would be built on the Murree Road. Lately, there is talk of building an overpass at Mareer Chowk. Lets see how long it takes the seventh nuclear power country to do so.

The need of the hour is that all drivers should be made to take the driving test again and once this system is properly functioning the driving test should repeated every five years. Of course, the people conducting the test should be well trained in this field, highly professional and highly paid.  I am sure some bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry will say that it will be too expensive. But I ask you if we add up the loss of thousands of lives , the hundreds of thousands that are injured or maimed for life and the loss of their vehicles., it would still cost less to run a National Drivers Testing Authority. To monitor traffic rules high caliber Traffic Police on the pattern of the NH&MP, be deployed in the cities as well. One can not and should not expect the present Traffic Police, who are poorly paid , poorly equipped, poorly trained, over worked and lack the publics’ respect, to strictly enforce the traffic rules. We all have seen instances of a driver breaking the red light, and the poor policeman just waving his hands at the offender. These drivers don’t care because they know that they would not be caught. But just imagine the scenario where the policeman radios the number plate of the car to his fellow policeman in a patrol car down the road. One reason why most drivers follow the rules so well on the Motorways and Highways is that they know they will be caught if they don’t. On the G.T. Road if you blink your lights at a slow moving driving in the right lane in front of you, it immediately moves to the left lane. Next time you travel on the G.T. Road you can check this out yourself. However, in the cities sometimes you can blink your lights and blow your horn all you want to, but the slow moving vehicle’s driver will refuse to change lanes, forcing you to overtake from the left which is against the traffic law.

I mostly watch TV in the evenings. During this time I have only seen one advertisement on traffic safety.  This is the one sponsored by Atlas Honda asking motorcyclists to wear crash helmets. PEMRA should have a rule in its charter stating that all TV and radio stations should be liable to make Public Service announcements for 1 minute in every hour. These announcements could be related to traffic rules, health matters, educational matters, etc. PEMRA could work with the NH&MP to develop half minute audiovisuals so the TV stations could run these. The other important requirement is enforcement. One way would be to set traffic fines at a level that would pinch the pocket book of the offender. For example someone deliberately breaking a red light should be fined Rs10,000/- and have his vehicle locked up for a week. Some of you would say that such a fine would be extremely steep. But if you calculate the cost of  damage to the car of the person breaking the red light and the car or cars that he hits, it would   be not less than Rs20,000/- or Rs30,000/-.  The medical cost to heal the injuries would be extra.  Another less costly way would be to take the air out of all the tyres of the car (after the police parking it in a location not where the traffic is obstructed). The offender would then have to remove all tyres (with one jack ?), load them  up in a taxi or a friend’s car, take them to a tyre shop to fill air in them and then go back to fit the tryes back on to the car. This should take about an hour.  In both cases people would think ten times before breaking a red light.

Therefore it would be imperative that traffic lights work like clock work. The new, bright traffic lights that have been installed recently in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Karachi should be installed on all major roads in all big cities. On major roads, the traffic lights should be powered by solar batteries, so that the traffic does not get tied up. If one would calculate the fuel consumed by vehicles stuck in traffic jams because of electricity failure, the cost of the solar batteries would pay for themselves within 3 to 4 months. Another thing that should be done soon is that traffic should be allowed from only one side of the intersection. The other three sides should be made to wait. The present system is extremely inefficient and dangerous. Case in point is the intersection at PeshawarMor. The traffic traveling on Kashmir Highway is allowed to move straight ahead or turn right. However, the traffic moving North and South has to cope with traffic lights that allow traffic to move ahead and also turn right, in both directions. As it is a very busy intersection drivers have to be very quick. When you see broken glass on the road you know that some driver was not quick enough. Another thing, the yellow light in the traffic light should remain on for longer, say for 3 seconds, instead of coming on and then immediately going off. This would give enough warning to the driver to stop well before the light turns red.

Some other measures that can be adopted is to have a compulsory vehicle examination for private vehicles once a year and for commercial vehicles every three months. This would reduce the number of wagon and bus accidents which invariably cause major loss of life and major disabilities. Can one contemplate a life without one’s limbs or sight? One of the major reasons for poor road surfaces is the massive overloading of trucks by the owners/operators. Along with this you have slow moving vehicles that hold up the traffic for faster moving vehicles. Once I was talking to a NH&MP official and suggested to him that trucks should not be overloaded. He came back with a prompt reply, that the truck owners would never agree to this and would immediately respond with a strike. This would result in a major law and order problem. But one should ask the question whether we as a nation should allow any group to have its way at the expense of the majority. Nowhere in the developed world are trucks allowed to exceed the load per axle. What truckers need to realize is that the optimum fuel consumption is around 90 kph. This would be possible if the road surface is not damaged. It is imperative that the NHA sits down with the truckers and tells them that they have five years at the end of which they would not be allowed to exceed the rated load. NHA along with truck manufacturers can recommend ways of optimizing fuel consumption. One of which is to remove the fixture jutting out in front of the trucks. This contraption is the worst example of working counter to the laws of aerodynamics.

The question arises how long can we allow the few (maybe less 10 %) to spoil driving for majority (maybe 90%). Already we have one of the highest accident rates in the world. With out driver education, strict rules, good roads and well trained police the situation will never improve.  Can you think of any other way to motivate a motorcyclist, who has two kids in front and a wife and baby at back, not to break the red light? With the increasing number of cars coming on the roads, things are only going to get worst. We have to remember that if we want to live the life style of developed countries, we will have to adopt the practices they follow to keep traffic moving smoothly. My children keep asking me to allow them to drive. I have permitted the one over 18 years to drive, but have informed the younger two that they will have to wait till they are over 18 years (the legal age for driving in Pakistan). I also do not permit them to ride in cars being driven by their friends who are under age. Under the present driving conditions it is extremely dangerous to allow immature children with limited experience to drive on the roads. If we want a safe future (at least on the roads) for our children, we all must push for improved traffic conditions.

-Published on pages#-34-35 December-2005 issue of MOBILE WORLD Magazine

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