In his book ‘Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What it Says About Us)’, Tom Vanderbilt started out with a simple objective: He “wanted to hear what traffic has to say”. The way we drive not only reflects our personalities but is also a function of our cultural heritage, Vanderbilt contends.
What made you put Delhi on your list of cities in which to be frightened out of your wits?
Packed like sardines: Traffic at Chowpatty in Mumbai.
I suppose I must have inhaled somewhere or other, something of the mythology that is Indian traffic—the multiplicity of transport modes, the livestock, the deities on the dashboards of taxi drivers. It’s not hard to think that “Incredible India” isn’t far off when looking at the roads.
Was Indian traffic all you feared it would be?
Coming from the US, with its low population densities and relative lack of street life, it’s not difficult to be swept up in the sheer volume of people on the roads—everything from ‘pandals’ to panhandlers—the “heterogenous” traffic flows with all the close jockeying for position, the constancy of the horn honking. Then there were the humorous, but also unnerving, warning signs (“Don’t dream or you’ll scream”). I also found it unnerving that every taxi driver seemed to give the same stock answer when I asked how they coped with the unpredictability of the traffic: “Good horn, good brakes, good luck.” Someone should put this on a T-shirt.
What did Delhi’s traffic tell you about Indians?
It, perhaps, said more to me about the ways norms of traffic behaviour are formed and then reinforced. I was told by Rohit Baluja, the head of the Institute of Road Traffic Education in Delhi, that there are 110 million traffic violations per day in the city. Under that regime, it would actually be counterproductive for anyone to follow formal traffic rules.
Dinesh Mohan at the IIT once did a study on foreigners driving in Delhi and he claimed they were jumping red lights even more so than locals. Why are there so many violations? Corruption probably explains a lot of it and that begins right at the licensing process, where a good number of Delhi drivers find it more efficient to pay bribes than formally go through the exam process. The writer Pavan Varma, describing corruption in India, has noted, “What matters is not fixity of principle but clarity of purpose.” That almost seems to describe the road behaviour I saw.
How was that different from New York, London, Beijing or Copenhagen?
Copenhagen has its unusually high bicycling rate, most New Yorkers ride the subway or walk, and London has thinned its traffic by charging people for the right to enter the centre. Beijing had some shared characteristics with Delhi, like the low helmet-wearing rate of motorcyclists or the difficulty of getting across the street, but arguably with better infrastructure. Delhi’s the only place where I saw “relax” printed on traffic lights.
What exactly is Smeed’s law?
Smeed was a British traffic researcher who found that as a country’s motorization rate rises, traffic fatalities also rise—but only up to a point, after which the fatality rate will continue to drop even as the number of automobiles continues to rise. Smeed theorized that there was a kind of “national learning curve” going on as well as the fact that as countries grow richer, and thus add more cars, they begin to pay more attention to things like safety issues. India, right now, is on the upward slope of that curve, and it’s people outside of the car who are bearing the brunt of injuries and deaths. If the relationship that has been observed between GDP and road fatalities holds for India, the road death rate will not begin to decline until 2042.
‘Traffic’, Penguin, Rs395.