Drive, Survive by Tara Kaushal

March 2013: What does the way we drive say about us?

A long time ago, I read one of these firang’s-first-time-in-India travel books, where he said that, when Indians want to go somewhere, they just point their cars in the direction and drive, side-of-road, traffic signals, etc, be damned. Not fair, we’re not that bad, I thought, but on second thought…

I've had a driving license from Noida, in the much maligned UP, since I was 18. I remember taking a proper test, driving alone around a veritable obstacle course, and passing. Ten years later, when I wanted to get one in Mumbai as my old one had expired, I was told that, no matter where else in India I have my license from, or for how long I've had it, in Maharashtra, I have to be a learner for a month first. Which I think is ridiculous; even Australia lets you get a license for merely possessing an Indian one! But a few friends said the possible justification is that Maharashtra has better driving than the rest of India, the state wants to maintain its standard of road safety, which is apparently higher than the rest of the country. “In Rajasthan, I know a blind person who has a license,” one said.

A couple of weeks ago, I went for my driving test in Andheri, to go from learner to full-license-holder. As I stood in line to get tested, someone came to me and asked whether I wanted to jump the line, for Rs 200. “Yahan sab kuch bribe se chalta hai,” he said. Well, apparently not necessarily bribe, but inefficiency se. When my turn finally came, I was put in to a driving school car, you know the ones where the instructor has pedals in the passenger seat... The ‘passenger’ drove for me in first gear, even when I protested that I could drive, no problem! I 'drove', straight, for a distance the width of a Mumbai building. “Chalo, aap pass ho gaye,” he said, stopping the car to let me off. And, a few days ago, my brand new and spanking smart card license arrived home.

My experience was not unique. Ami Mane, 24, was similarly co-driven down a road, but at least she was made to demonstrate reversing. Another friend who, daunted by the chaos of the system, went through a tout, never even went for the ‘test’, thought he did go to be fingerprinted and photographed. So when the newspapers point out that an accident-causing driver was a juvenile/without a license, forgive me for thinking: what a farce.

Driving lessons home collage all.jpg

Cut to my driving test in Australia last year. Since I didn’t have a valid Indian license, I had to start from scratch. While other states have it easier, Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has the strictest driving license laws. Before being allowed to even take the multiple-choice theory test, driving license hopefuls have to attend a weekend-long workshop, the fees of which includes three attempts at the objective test. After passing this test, we would have to be learners for between six months and two years, and would not be allowed to drive unless we had zero blood alcohol and a full-license-holder in the car. After passing a driving test, we’d hold provisional licenses for three years, and only then would we get full licenses. Phew!

As I sat mugging up my manual in the run-up to the weekend, I wondered what this workshop was going to be about. What happened was this: in the two days of coaching, the instructor rarely mentioned the words ‘fine’ or ‘punishment’ to our class of 20. Instead, we were taught the reasons behind the rules. We were shown and discussed videos of driving accidents caused by speeding drivers; made to challenge our concentration through a card game to demonstrate why talking on the phone would make one a worse driver; and made to walk lines in glasses that simulated being drunk. (Interestingly, Australia doesn’t use the work ‘drunk’ driving/driver, but ‘drink’ driving/driver, subtly driving home the point that your blood alcohol level is what matters, even though you may not be or feel drunk. It also has graphic and no-nonsense ad campaigns for safe driving: ‘People DIE on ACT Roads’, different from our funny ones: ‘Safety on Roads, Safe Tea at Home’.)

This was not what I expected, and some point during the workshop I had an epiphany. You see, I carry the baggage of the way we are taught to follow rules in India, with the carrot and stick approach, where the emphasis is on the punishment for getting caught. The ‘why/why not’ is not about the reasons for doing/not doing certain things or following/not following the law, but about doing them when convenient and escaping the eyes of the law. Notice how, several years after the seatbelt law was passed, many cab drivers will put theirs on only when they enter Mumbai from the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.

Sociologically, we are considered a collectivist society as opposed the West’s individualistic one, which is why we lay such a misguided emphasis on preserving ‘culture’. Scratch the surface, and beneath the mass hysteria at Ganesh Chaturthi (transformed into a public celebration by Tilak to unite and promote nationalism in Maharashtrian Hindus), the idealising of the joint family system and of the long suffering Mother India figure, and there emerges a picture of a people who each believes that s/he comes first, with the deep-seated hypocrisy and disdain for governance of the individualist in a mismanaged collectivist society. So we double park to run in to a store or to touch-and-go at a temple; see red lights as out to personally inconvenience our day; dodge traffic cops down one-ways; and tail ambulances and cavalcades when possible to travel home in the fast lane…

There are manifold challenges with this approach of and to the law. First, the most basic lesson of good teaching: encouraging parroting and promoting punishment as opposed to explaining reasons will leave any lesson unlearnt. And, for a pushy, me-first race like Indians, that will only mean following the law until one doesn’t get caught, making the government seem autocratic and dictatorial. This approach also puts undue pressure on policing—and with the ability to bribe policemen for the smallest offences to the BMW hit-and-run deaths, where’s the fear of that? A ‘because I say so’ Chinese-government-type attitude will (and does) not work on the Indian psyche, and certainly not when law enforcement is suspect, lax and distrusted.

As the country rages against the fraudulent education imparted by the IIPMs, may I suggest that the government work at systematically and systemically educating Indians that road rules are for a reason—and for their personal as well as others' good. And us, with the fire in our bellies to challenge authority: let’s save our energy to change the system in spheres that really matter.

An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in March 2013.