The design challenge called Indian traffic [1]

India’s traffic problem is real. No, seriously. Indian drivers makes Italians look tame and Londoners look like novice drivers.

(C) Image from the Hindustan Times

India also has the dubious superlative distinction of having the highest number of deaths in road accidents in the world. The government of India publishes data on road accidents which will make the most hardened person’s eyes water.

I suspect Thaler and Sunstein may weep if they saw how spectacularly any design nudge fails on Indian roads.

Lanes, what lanes? Where available at all, a three-lane main road commonly will have been made into five or six or seven chopping and changing lanes.

Traffic dividers are an easily ignored suggestion, not a design element to separate streams of traffic by direction. Most dividers sooner or later find themselves broken to create illegitimate U-turns for vehicles. No prizes for guessing what this does to vehicular traffic flow! But hey, don’t get upset. Keep your hair on — that car or truck coming at you in the opposite direction is on the wrong side of the road indeed. You need to act and save your vehicle and yourself.

Then there are roundabouts. In normal circumstances, in areas with higher vehicular than pedestrian traffic, roundabouts are more efficient than traffic lights, in keeping traffic moving. Not in India. There seems to be no priority for anyone. Everyone enters it as and when and the space is negotiated (sometimes not). And pedestrians try and cross junctions in the middle of that traffic.

Since I mentioned traffic lights, I feel duty-bound to point out that almost nobody respects traffic lights, especially red lights. It would appear red lights are mere suggestions! Indeed a friend stopped at a red light only to be told off by a driver: “You stopped at a red light? Why?”. One morning, at 7am, a state transport corporation bus nearly rammed into my car because it was trying to turn right on a red light, while my car was turning right on a green light. There but for the grace of who-knows-what go I!

The corollary to that behaviour at traffic lights is this shorthand used by many:

Green – Go. Amber – Go Faster. Red – Go if you like.

Many traffic lights now use timers. Contrary to the design intent, the times serve as an excuse for speeding or revving. Putting timers on lights to show how many seconds to red or to green has only had the effect of turning everyone into Mad Max, either speeding through or revving, depending on whether the light is about to turn red or green.

Then there is the non-use — perhaps non-awareness — of car features.

Hardly anyone uses car indicators to indicate whether they intend to turn or intend to move left or bright. Particularly if you see a driver/ rider on your left, revving while you are waiting at a red light as is customary, you can be certain even before the light changes fully he/ she will cut across in front of you to turn, of course, right! Or not. But the trick is you will not know till you start to move.

Many cars have their side mirrors either absent, or permanently folded to prevent them from breaking. Cars often move past each other at a distance smaller than the width of a side mirror so there is a finite chance of the side mirror breaking. But the effect of no-side-mirror on driving is anyone’s guess.

How about flashing lights? People driving from opposite directions in a narrow street flash their lights at each another. The translation? “I am here, make way for me”. People also flash lights at the drivers ahead of them. Same translation.

People honk constantly — not to draw attention to their presence in case another driver makes a sudden move. But to indicate “I am here, make way for me”. Sometimes people honk in stand-still traffic. That is totally incomprehensible, but then again, what about the list so far is comprehensible?

Lax laws mean seat belts are compulsory only in the front. At the back therefore, most car makers oblige by hanging seat belt straps, but no plugs to plug them into. Not good for passengers in the back seat.

Finally there is this.

The driving chaos does make one’s heart stop for a moment, when an ambulance with flashing lights and sirens is waiting to be given way. Nobody does — indeed can, for where does the traffic move after making three lanes into five or six or seven — give way. I was told that there are many, who paint fake ambulance signage and use flashing lights and sirens to get ahead. The result is that now nobody believes it is a real ambulance. Such “enterprise” and non-standard signage means you really can’t tell if a vehicle is in non-ambulance use or for real.

The distrust of the fellow citizen, whether driver or pedestrian, is evident wherever we look. Combined with a poverty mindset, that makes zero-sum thinking the default and that imbues every action with selfishness with no regard whatsoever for the larger societal impact of one person’s choices, this distrust makes for a lethal combination on Indian roads.

How, if at all, can design address the great Indian traffic conundrum?

Short, flippant answer would say, with difficulty, and over a very long period of time.

Why? Well, that is the next post.

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