Gavin Rabinowitz, AP
New Delhi: Smoking poses serious health risks. So does driving in New Delhi. And combining the two is deadly, according to two New Delhi judges who have barred smoking at the wheel, apparently the first such ban in the world.
Declaring “New Delhi roads dangerous to human life,” the city’s High Court this week imposed a slew of new measures aimed at deterring habitually bad drivers, including the smoking ban and a prohibition on using a mobile phone while at the wheel.
“Anything that distracts the attention of driver is dangerous. The human mind cannot do two things simultaneously,” said New Delhi’s traffic commissioner Qamar Ahmed, welcoming the ruling, which goes into effect 9 April and only covers New Delhi, a city of 14 million people.
Those caught smoking at the wheel would pay Rs1,500, a hefty fine by local standards. Offenders caught more than five times would have their license revoked, the court said. The same fines apply to using a mobile phone and the less well-defined offense of “dangerous driving.”
Many drivers in New Delhi welcomed the court ruling, saying that anything that would control the chaos on the city’s roads — where many drivers regard red lights as suggestions and right of way is often determined by vehicle size — was a positive step.
The new codes are “a very good idea. Traffic is very difficult here, it’s frightening,” said 18-year-old student driver Ankita Maniktala.
“Sometimes I don’t know which way the cars are going to be going,” she said, referring to the accepted habit of driving the wrong way down streets to create short cuts.
Still, New Delhi’s roads — where some 4 million buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, auto-rickshaws, bicycle-rickshaws and horse-drawn carts compete with millions of pedestrians, India’s free-roaming cows and the occasional elephant — seems an unlikely place to pioneer new road safety codes.
It’s not the first time New Delhi’s courts have played an innovative role. A 1998 court order eventually forced all the city’s public transport to switch from petrol and diesel to compressed natural gas to cut pollution.
In many instances, court orders are the only way to effect change in the city struggling with massive growth, a tangled bureaucracy, endemic corruption and lax law enforcement.
The court said it decided to step in on its own as the death toll on city roads mounted to over 1,900 annually and existing traffic laws, which have not been updated since their introduction 20 years ago, went largely ignored.
While talking on a mobile phone when driving has been barred in dozens of countries, the no-smoking-while-driving law in private vehicles appears to be a precedent that could be closely watched in other countries.
Several US states are currently considering similar rules, with Vermont lawmakers considering a blanket ban on any activities that could interfere with driving — like smoking, eating, drinking, reading, writing or even interacting with pets.
Other US states and cities and Cyprus have banned smoking when there are children in the car.
There are no blanket smoking and driving bans in European countries, Japan or South Africa where strict anti-smoking laws have been enacted. However, in Ireland, which became the first country to ban smoking in enclosed workplaces, most notably pubs, it is technically illegal to smoke in your home or the cab of your truck if these are your workplaces. But these rules are not enforced.
New Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said Tuesday that police were “ready to enforce the court decision.” But most drivers were skeptical, noting that with the capital’s notoriously corrupt traffic police it would be easy to avoid the new penalties.
“In India I doubt this can be enforced. I can just give a bribe of Rs50 and get away without paying it (the fine),” said Chetan Rawla, 20.
The court also raised fines for traditional traffic violations — like driving through red lights or failing to halt at a stop sign — from Rs100 to Rs600, noting that the paltry sums no longer acted as a deterrent in a country where people have grown increasingly wealthy as the economy has boomed.