A few weeks back I flipped FM channels on my way to office and heard a bubbly and youthful female radio jockey. In her own inimitable manner, she talked about Mohanlal, who had said that “Rishi Raj Singh is the real star”; the reason being the latter’s crusade against overspeeding on the roads of Kerala.
The other day I flipped TV channels at home, and encountered Singh on one of the channels in a brilliant yellow cravat and bright blue shirt holding forth on his crusade; that speed governors would be made applicable to a larger fleet of vehicles and that it would be ruthlessly enforced.
Yes, he is a star; his stage presence is imposing and his statements have the punch of crisply written movie monologues that are staple in action films of Mohanlal. The similarity is striking; no wonder Mohanlal talked of Rishi Raj Singh.
I have driven extensively on Indian roads since late 2010 - these solo journeys gave me opportunities to reflect and introspect on many subjects. One of them was speed and road safety. Comparisons are, at times, odious, but inevitable.
Gujarat is the flavour of the day. So let’s see what happens there in comparison to God’s Own Country. Kerala has the lowest permissible speed on a National Highway (NH) - 70 versus 80 km in most other States; arguably, it also has the narrowest stretch of NH in India (NH17); it also has the most zealous enforcement of speed norms anywhere in the country.
The road between Ahmedabad and Viramgam is a State Highway (SH). The speed limit is 100 km. The National Expressway 1 between Ahmedabad and Vadodara carries one of the densest traffic at the highest speeds in India. What is the road safety record of these two stretches, as compared to the ones in Kerala?
Quite laudable, as compared to the restriction-bound Kerala roads. NHAI has put up reflective hoardings on the NE1 proudly proclaiming that ‘Speed with Safety is our Objective.’ Note the relative importance given to speed and safety in that statement of intent.
I have driven the 135 km-NE1 in 55 minutes in the night. How? The road is superbly maintained, grid separation is complete and road users adhere steadfastly to lane discipline. In addition, the traffic police enforce the use of a yellow sticker on the right side headlight to cut the nuisance of high beam headlights of oncoming vehicles.
These features are not there on the Ahmedabad-Viramgam stretch - it is just that the roads are superbly maintained. The poor facilities on the road, the narrow contours where even a bicycle can derail you, indifferent co-users of the road and protesters of various hues make progress on Kerala highways almost impossible.
I was in one such situation not so long ago. A political rally between Payyannur and Nileswaram held me ‘hostage’ on the National Highway for nearly an hour. I tried to catch up on lost time once I got out of the vice-like grip of the rallyists.
Out of nowhere a posse of traffic police waved me down. The Inspector alleged over-speeding - 71 km against the permissible 70 km!! I was so stumped that my eyeballs had to be gathered from the road and my throat, that had gone suddenly dry, would not help my words out.
Every road accident in Kerala, particularly involving larger vehicles and the young and old, evoke widespread reactions and gives an opportunity to the enforcers to talk about restrictions. And the unruly among us resort to manhandling of the alleged culprits and torching of the offending vehicle.
As a society, we in India, take the easy way out. There is no studied response to the ‘offense’. It is easier to talk about restricting speed than understand the reasons behind the ‘offense’ and take corrective actions.
The State should follow the 3 Es of ‘Enable, Empower and Encircle’. Enable - facilitate the citizen by providing infrastructure that will combine speed with safety. Empower - educate the road users by means of theory prior to granting of license and use of road warnings and directions. Encircle - penalise the road users who step out of line irrespective of his/her social status.
The speed limits are meant for everyone. They are not meant to be selectively used. It seems that one can travel at any speed and in any manner on the Kerala roads as long as one has a light - of any color - on top of the vehicle and a siren to top it.
It is my observation that no city or state in India has as many ambulances on the roads as Kerala has. Either, we are a sick people or are fond of using an ambulance as a fast getaway vehicle!
Our state is one of great contradictions. One of them is that we want to restrict the width of the NH to 30 meters, restrict vehicular speed to 70 km and yet manage a high density of vehicle population.
We can manage the first and the last if we make the road and the road user fit for higher speed! Speed, by itself, is not the reason for road accidents. It, in combination with poor infrastructure, inadequate adherence to safe driving rules and lack of strict implementation, leads to road accidents.
Correct reporting of road safety statistics will bear this statement out. Therefore, the State, in failing to do the above, is the culprit.
What we see is the tyranny of the State where restrictions are imposed without discharging its responsibilities to the road users (I often wonder why the Motor Vehicle Department does not insist on Speed Governors as a sine qua non to register vehicles in Kerala!).
Real issues are skirted and buried. The State and its agents must promote the concept of ‘driving responsibly safe’ by attending to physical infrastructure, educating the road user and implementing road safety. The 3 Es must be the watchword.
The last word: attack the problem holistically, so that, long term, process-based solutions are laid down; knee jerk, personality-based solutions look and sound heroic, but does little to save precious lives.
(Suresh Joseph is the former general manager, DP World and Indian Railways Traffic Service. He is the holder of 8 solo national driving records recognised by Limca Book of Records)