At 8.15 on a recent night, Viraj Kalra was driving home and a car rolled back into his Hyundai Santro.
That wasn’t the worst mistake of the evening. Honking was. Kalra says he simply pressed the horn, first as a polite warning, then with annoyance.
In response, the driver got out with a hockey stick in hand, opened Kalra’s door and took aim.
THWACK. Onto the Santro’s bonnet.
The next strike, Kalra prayed, would knock him unconscious right away. The raging driver swung back again.
And the light turned green.
Seeing the vehicles around him revving to go, the man released his grip, stayed in character enough to mutter an obscenity to Kalra, jumped back in his car and drove off.
Kalra, vice-president for new businesses at PlanMan Consulting, recounted the story in a mass email.
“The incident came as close to ripping the human fabric into shreds as any,” he wrote. “At this point words like ‘society’, ‘civilized’, ‘rules’ and ‘humane’ sound shallow.”
This week, another one where the Capital’s deadly roads made headlines, I caught up with Kalra to see if he had any perspective on why drivers—across the country, not just New Delhi—seem so angry, why driving has gotten so dangerous.
His answer inspired me to break a pledge I made when I moved to India and began writing Wider Angle: no columns complaining about traffic. Rest assured, Kalra’s response is right up our alley.
“Honestly the kind of work that all of us do now, we carry a lot of pressure even into our cars and into our driving, our spaces,” Kalra said. “You probably need an outlet, and the psychological profile is that we are more stressed than a decade ago.”
The only India-specific survey I found to address the roots of road rage was released in June by LeasePlan, a vehicle leasing and management company. In India, it says, the main causes boil down to drivers going in the wrong direction (64%), drivers who cut queues (61%), excessive honking (57%) and aggressive driving (57%). Nearly one-third of respondents ranked New Delhi the place with the “worst drivers,” followed by Bangalore (16%) and Kolkata (12%).
But that doesn’t really get into the heart of the drivers who stage verbally abusive and violent tantrums. I doubt the survey asked if they ever gave someone the finger on the road because they couldn’t give it to their boss. Or if the shouting at fellow drivers in queue stemmed from the wife threatening divorce over all the late nights at office. Indeed, we do carry our moods into our cars with us and fellow harried drivers fuel the cycle of dysfunction and destruction.
Research conducted by a psychology student at the University of South Australia found that people experiencing significant stress in the workplace develop shorter “fuses” in managing their anger, influencing their behaviour on the roads. Among workers under constant stress who feel undervalued, underpaid and under-appreciated at work, even minor situations can trigger anger and uncontrolled aggression—unleashed on the motoring public, researcher Ben Hoggan concluded.
“These people release their frustrations on the road because it is a convenient location for them. They feel invincible within their protective steel barrier,” he said. “It’s their space on the road and if people invade that space, the drivers believe they are well within their rights to attack other road users.”
Drivers who kill and throw hockey sticks can be dismissed as crazy—but what about the swearing, swerving rest? On the roads, unlike, say home or work, stores or restaurants, hierarchy becomes unclear and exudes irony. The guy driving the Mercedes likely can’t even afford a Maruti, an understandable source of rage. He perhaps can’t tell his employer to back off, so he acts out in the one place he has control: behind the wheel. The same I have seen from female drivers, who actually brag more often about being ruthless on the road.
Perhaps the fiercest rage in recent months has been over the Blueline bus fiasco, its fatal casualties approaching about 100 people this year. There have been rightful concerns over driver qualifications and whether those behind the wheel of commercial vehicles receive adequate training, testing and screening. The same questions can and should be extended to a lot of drivers on the road. Enforcing existing traffic rules is a start. So is toughening the test to get a licence in the first place. Perhaps our children’s generation needs to learn to drive in school.
But in a country defined by chaos, corruption and endless tests of patience, I am doubtful these actions will immediately cure our road rage.
Something more is causing us to lose our cool, it’s only partly about everybody else’s incompetence. Accepting that fact might be the first step to regaining control.
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