The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Are motor-cars turning us into psychopaths'

One of the things that incenses me while driving in Delhi at night is the fact that eight out of ten cars keep their lights on high beam. My usual response is to hit my own high beams as soon as I get a pair of headlights in my eyes and to keep them high till the offender passes. But this doesn't seem to make any difference ' the other guy usually takes this as a sign of my returning to normalcy and not, as intended, a strong suggestion that the minus-IQ dip his own lights and try a bit of civilized driving.

Recently, though, a friend stumbled on to a new technique that seems to work a bit better. What he does now is to wait for the offending high-beam merchant to get pretty close before steering slightly into him and then flicking on his own high-beams. The effect of this glare-ambush, coupled with the change of angle, has had a pretty satisfying effect ' even vehicles much bigger than my friend's car are forced to slow down, and at least six out of ten drop their beams instinctively. Should you be tempted to try this little trick in your home-town please do keep in mind that one or two of the oncoming cars have wobbled, nearly lost control, and come close to a head-on collision with my friend.

The question asks itself: if constantly driving with the high-beam ' clearly a dangerous thing to do ' is a kind of medium-level lunacy, then isn't countering it with an even more risky manoeuvre a high-level one' And, leading from this, are our motor-cars turning us into psychopaths'

If you watch the parking wars below my house you would certainly think so. People are perennially scrabbling for parking space in a vicious game of automotive musical chairs. One driver working for a neighbour was so enraged that someone had taken a space he considered his by divine right that he threw all class-fear to the wind and followed the space-thief all the way up to the second-floor and began to shout and bang on his door. Apparently, he did not leave till someone threatened to call the police. Another guy, a young turk, regularly likes to ram the cars in front or behind him when he's trying to get out of his parking. A third person, a lady, gets punctured the tyres of any automobile that dares occupy 'her' space. On some days I think it's only a matter of time before someone instals a rocket-launcher on his terrace, and mine is supposed to be a civilized colony compared to some others in the Capital.

While I love zipping down a decent open road in my pseudo-sports job as much as the next wannabe-Schumi, I now greet news of each new multi-lane intercity expressway, and of each new marque and model entering the national market, with some alarm. Those broad autobahns with the fancy tarmac look most inviting in the government ads, and those shiny new hatchbacks and SUVs are at their best caged inside showrooms. Once the new petro-monster is actually out, shouldering other cars on the overcrowded highways and city avenues, all hell breaks loose.

Whether in maniacal locomotion or uneasy repose, the automobile seems to yank reactions from us that are bizarrely out of proportion with any normal, accommodatory human behaviour. It's as if the quadwheel is in control of the deep gears of our emotional engines and not, as it should be, somewhat the other way around.

Writing in The Guardian about what he calls 'the road-rage lobby', George Monbiot points out: 'the extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here begins on the road. When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become.'

Now, sure, we in India do need more of the kind of bloody-mindedness it takes to root out corruption or to make sure our private corporations meet environmental standards, and certainly, to be individualistic in this society is not always a bad thing, for example if you can go against the grain and say: 'No, I won't give any dowry for my daughter's marriage.' But what Monbiot is talking about is a thuggish selfishness: 'The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and Australians, into a nation that recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people's actions. We drive on the left in Britain, but we are being driven to the right.'

There are a very few things that have Holy Cow status in Indian politics. The main area is, of course, that of defence and military spending where, astonishingly, political parties of every colour have tacitly but continuously agreed to let a large chunk of the national budget go play inside the cantonment walls. While this country throws up a very different traffic snarl of problems from America, Australia or Britain, another such area of agreement, one that is far less remarked upon, is around the unbridled expansion of the internal combustion engine and the millions of hench-machines it has spawned. Whether it is A.B. Vajpayee and his Quadrilateral dream, or Buddhadeb-babu and his maze of brand-new flyovers strangling Calcutta, the quiet consensus seems to be that India needs its transport network far more than it needs any human safeguards or enforceable environmental regulations. To do a variation on Monbiot, whether it comes from the right or the left, India is being driven crazy.

The best rope of doubt one can pay out to our leaders is that perhaps they have a notion that restraints and safety measures can come in once the economy is unassailably on its feet. The point is, if we ignore the tangled mess of our roads and motor vehicles now, we may end up with a 'robust' economy only on the surface, with vast social, psychic and physical devastation just a few feet away on either side of the expressway. From the micro-battles of parking-violence in urban neighbourhoods to the macro-Mahabharat of our countryside indiscriminately going under the tarmac, and of the compromised international deals we are having to make for oil and petrol, the motor-car most of us climb into every day is rapidly moving from being a part of the solution to becoming a part of the problem.

It's obviously not possible to do away with cars, but surely the majority of people in this country, i.e. those who don't possess or control vehicles, need to have protected their freedom from the consequences of the vehicle-controlling minority's actions' To start with, a stiff and strictly enforced congestion charge in all our major metros, along the lines of the one being levied in central London, is perhaps not such an outlandish idea' With the money accruing from the tax going straight into improving of our urban public transport systems'

And, as for something that cuts across the whole country, perhaps the speed-demon first needs to be brought to its knees. Now, we all know speed-bumps don't really work and, because of the scale of what needs to be dealt with, speed-cameras won't either. So, perhaps what we need is to develop new technology which we can then export to the world. Something like all engines coming with a radio-lock that automatically ceilings the car to an appropriate speed in any given area. So, a max of 15 kmph outside my door which will stop the autistic seventeen-year-old who likes to tear around trying to kill stray dogs, 40-50 kmph on most city roads going up to 65 on some, and then, perhaps, higher speeds on highways, slowing down where little villages flank the road.

People will still be crazy and vicious, but at least they will be forced to dispense their will to homicide/ suicide at a much slower rate of propulsion, as if in a perpetual Calcutta. Oh, and then as per my wish-list, all cars should come with automatically controlled headlight dippers which do not allow high-beams for more than 5 seconds at a time. If this fantasy actually becomes reality I don't mind if my other fantasy ' that of driving one of those gorgeous new Rs 1.5 crore Lamborghinis just introduced here ' comes true only within that context.

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