The city of Mumbai recently conducted a campaign against unnecessary honking. This and such other campaigns must succeed. In addition to making our cities quieter places, the success of the campaign will go a long way in demonstrating to us that we as a society can let go of habits that are — and there is really no other word for it — stupid.
Consider the following example. Recently I took a taxi trip from Kalina to Worli in Mumbai, a 14km drive that took around 40 minutes. I was with two colleagues and we decided to bet on how many times the driver would honk during this trip. Our estimates ranged from below 50 to more than 100. The actual was 89. What was more instructive was the driver’s own guess, after the fact, of how many times he thought he had honked. He told us that he thought he had honked around 10 times!
Contrast this with the experience of an acquaintance, who is a US citizen. This person has been born and brought up in the US and has been driving for more than 15 years and has probably driven for many more miles than most Indians would in the same period. She thought that she might have honked around seven or eight times in her life!
In fact, she could remember most of the individual instances where she had to resort to honking while driving.
Now driving conditions, including the driving habits of our fellow drivers, are very different in India from those in the US. Lane discipline is much more stringent, the concept of the right of way is widely understood and followed, traffic signals are obeyed even after 8 in the evening and, in general, driving is rule-based. But surely, even the die-hard “India is very different from the West” kind of person would agree that there is much more honking on Indian roads than is strictly necessary.
Honking should be strictly necessary only if the driver perceives that there is danger of an accident.
It is very difficult to come out with a logical explanation for most of the honking that takes place in Indian cities. Drivers honk when standing still behind a row of 20 cars and when they have no idea why the first of the 20 has halted. Drivers slowing for a turn are honked at even when the person honking herself slows while on the same turn. Even Tim Hartford, the Financial Times columnist who fancies himself to find the underlying logic for apparently illogical acts, would be hard-pressed to find the benefit that drivers get from honking.
Contrast this with the experience of drivers in the US and Europe. One rarely hears the sound of a car horn. Most visitors from India or for that matter from other countries in Asia and Africa are amazed at how quiet the streets are in the West.
So, should it not be easy to break a habit that does not benefit anyone but makes all our lives worse than could be? It isn’t. The clue to the difficulty lies in the example above: Most drivers are not aware of their HonkScore. And most have not thought about it too much. And most don’t think that it is something bad.
The difficulty, thus, is education and setting new social norms.
Our country faces many serious and pressing issues. Solutions to most of them are not easy. In addition to setting new social norms and educating people, these solutions require people to let go of their vested interests. Thus, we don’t broaden roads because a house or a shop is in the way or we don’t build flyovers because it may lead to a singer losing her voice.
There is no vested interest in honking. It is imperative that the anti-honking campaign does not fail. In addition to more peaceful cities, the success of the campaign would demonstrate to all of us that together we can make our cities better places.
Yogesh Upadhyaya, a resident of Mumbai, thinks quieter cities make better cities and are worth working for. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org