How ignorance, arrogance, more than potholes, kill bikers in TN

The other day, a superbike with three youngsters, none with a helmet, raced past me near Anna Nagar.
Image used for representational purposes only. (Express Illustrations)
Image used for representational purposes only. (Express Illustrations)

On Chennai roads, you are on a wing and a prayer. Two-wheelers emerge from nowhere and flit across the road in a flash. Helmets are anathema to most of them; one-ways, zebra crossings and traffic signals are probably meant only for cars and trucks. The four-member family on a scooter may remind you of the old Hamara Bajaj ad; the trio of youngsters on a merry-go-round is just a new-age extension.

The other day, a superbike with three youngsters, none with a helmet, raced past me near Anna Nagar. I felt a sudden urge to rev up my car and go and tell them to slow down. But they took a daring zigzag and vanished into the sea of vehicles in front of my eyes. A few minutes later, I saw them, badly bruised and bleeding, being carried into a waiting car. Their mangled superbike lay on the road as a crude reminder.

Unlike in Delhi and Bangalore, road rages are rare in Chennai. A scuff here and a scratch there—nobody seems much bothered. Such shoving is as common as idli-sambar on your breakfast menu. After the nudge, the two- and three-wheelers scoot off with a wink and a smile. Some narrow lanes in the city are so notorious that people warn you adequately: a walk in the Chennai sun will save you from a visit to the garage.

Two-wheelers are at the heart of TN’s massive mobility campaign. Nowhere in the country do you get to see scores of women and girls travel independently on their scooters, bikes, and cycles. Some ride, some waddle. Learning to ride on their own and seeking a licence at a discount is the unwritten norm. Political parties had been at the forefront of the campaign. In 2018, it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who launched the late chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s pet two-wheeler scheme for working women. It was Jaya’s promise to thousands of women voters, mostly working women from lower socioeconomic strata, during the 2016 elections. The ‘freedom’ campaign has surely contributed to TN’s female labour participation rate, which stands at a healthy 30%, one of the highest in India. The multitude of ignorant riders on the road is the by-product.

In the modern dystopia, such schemes are now classified as freebies and the “Revadi culture”. The ruling DMK government abhors such classification, but as a policy, it is actively promoting public transport amid the hubbub of climate change. Soon after MK Stalin took oath in May 2021, one of the first orders he signed was free bus travel for women, implementing DMK’s poll promise. It was later extended to transgenders too. As central and state governments fought over their right to tax people, the country’s exorbitantly high petrol and diesel prices ruthlessly grounded many two-wheelers.

Yet, the two-wheeler population on the road grew alarmingly. Every second person in Chennai now owns a two-wheeler. But something that stood for freedom for women has turned out to be a mass killer. It’s not a mountain-out-of-the-molehill story. The statistics are quite scary: Tamil Nadu reported 8,259 deaths involving two-wheelers in 2021, the most in the country, followed by Uttar Pradesh. Among cities, Chennai recorded the second-highest number of fatal road accidents, marginally behind Delhi. Bad roads and potholes do their part. But ignorance and arrogance are a deadly mishmash when one gets a firm grip on the throttle.

Can a metropolis thrive without a prudent traffic culture? Can we stop executives abandoning TN cities for want of road safety? Traffic cops have to hit the road more often. Hefty fines and immediate suspension of licences will do the magic. In the evening edit meetings, the news of accidents and deaths should not sound repetitive any more.

Anto T Joseph
Resident Editor, Tamil Nadu
anto@newindianexpress.com

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