Thoughts And Ideas
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Thoughts And Ideas

Where cops wear smiles, not guns

Policeman giving out a flyer on road safety, wearing helmets, etc (courtesy: deccanchronicle.com)

Let me start by admitting that I myself am not a particularly law abiding citizen, at least as far as Indian road rules go. If I come across a red light and the road is clear of traffic and cops, I’m likely to quickly nip across, with my head swivelling wildly from side to side to make sure I don’t get run over by some mad trucker. I mean what’s life like without a few thrills?

Ok, before you condemn me as a psycho who puts the lives of other travellers at risk, I would like to argue that it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. Why?Because in a country where no one follows the rules, people expect the unexpected. India’s roads are full of jaywalkers and manic two wheeler riders. Forget ignoring the rules, they aren’t even aware such things exists!

Like only in India will you see the entire traffic come to a unprotesting halt as an old gentleman suddenly decides to potter across a busy signal just as the light turns green. Or see a a guy riding an underpowered mobike carrying two giant stacks of bananas blindly careen into a main road from a tiny side road without so much as a sideways glance to check if the main road is clear (not to mention calmly ignoring the truck bearing down on him with a blaring horn and squealing brakes). Or hang on for dear life as your three-wheeler taxi driver suddenly does a U-turn in the middle of a busy one way road, and scoots off at top speed against the traffic flow, seemingly on a suicide mission.

What’s more relevant is that if a car so much as brushes against one of these characters, it’s the bigger vehicle that’s always at fault. In fact, the car driver is likely to be beaten up by a mob of angry citizens before the cops even arrive. This kind of street justice ensures sort of makes up for the shortage of policemen on the roads. So most people don’t risk speeding, and are always alert for the unforeseen. In fact, even if the roads are empty, it’s not a good idea to travel above 50km/hr on most of India’s roads as they are poorly maintained, and some of the potholes are big enough to break your axle.

Of course, there are always exceptions.

Like the state transport bus driver who once nearly gave me a heart attack by appearing suddenly out of tunnel on a four lane highway. He was in the fast lane doing 60km/hr, except that the nitwit was on the wrong side of the highway, and headed straight at me as I was clipping downhill at 100 km/hr. Turns out his route involved a turning across the highway, but as the next U-turn was around two kilometres away, the guy decided to take a short cut.

In fact, this is why Indian newspapers reporting a road accident often mention that the driver ‘absconded.’ He was probably running as fast as he could to the safety of the nearest police station to avoid being lynched on the spot.

One reason why India’s police can’t enforce road rules, is there are around a billion and half citizens and far too few policemen. But with India witnessing one of the highest accident rates in the world at 17 deaths and 55 road accidents every hour in 2016, the government seems to have decided to make a serious attempt to enforce the law. And they seem to have started with the seatbelt law.

Unlike helmets which became a must for bikers a year ago, wearing a seatbelt in a car was not compulsory until recently in many parts of the country. That includes the south Indian city where I live currently. Unfortunately for me, the day the cops decided to start to enforce the seatbelt law was a holiday. The thing is on holidays in India, there’s a sort of unspoken agreement that the road rules are off for the day. So most people tend to drive through crossings with just a cursory check to ensure the road is clear.

So there I was idly waiting at a red light on a holiday. Eventually, I noticed the roads were empty, and I started creeping forward into the roundabout, craning my neck to check if there was anything else entering the roundabout.

That was when I heard a knock on the passenger window of my car. I turned around to find a policeman with a wide grin on his face. He had been standing on my blind spot, observing me patiently waiting at the signal, and then deciding to break the law.

He politely asked me to park at the road side, checked my driving license, and then gave me ₹100 ($1.50) fine for the red signal violation. His grin then became even wider as he informed me that seatbelts were being enforced from that day, and I had the honour of being the first person that he was fining me (₹100 again) for not wearing a seatbelt.

I could not help smiling back at him. India don’t carry guns, are generally friendly, and not very menacing. Of course, if they catch you doing something really silly then they are apt to let off a torrent of abuse. Moreover the ₹200 fine seemed a fair deal, seeing as it was the first time a multiple offender like me had been fined for running the red.

My problem however was the seatbelt. Though I used to habitually put on seatbelt earlier, I had lost the habit after I moved back to India a few years ago. And the ₹100 fine was not painful enough to rewire my muscle memory. (In comparison, the last time I was caught by a cop with a speed gun in Dubai for going 22km/hr over the limit, the fine was a tear-inducing ₹12,500 or $190).

Anyway a couple of days later, I drove up to the same signal and noticed the cop lurking in the driver’s blind spot. I smiled as I informed my kid that it was the same guy who caught me for cutting the signal. She quietly pointed out that I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt. My smile was replaced by a panicked scramble as I hurried to belt myself down as the cop sauntered towards us. Luckily, it was dark, and my headlights made it difficult for the cop to tell from a distance that I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt. Close shave!

Yesterday, my luck ran out. I had remembered to put on my seatbelt, but had stopped to pick up something just before I exited the main road. Sure enough, I forgot the seatbelt as I got back in the car. A minute later, the happy cop waved me down, and issued a second ticket for ₹100. He cheerfully pointed out that things could be worse as the fines weren’t going on to my record because my driving license was issued in another state. A third offence usually results in a suspended driving license. That cheered me up.

This morning, I again forgot the seatbelt. If I could kick myself, I surely would.

But as I was cursing myself, it struck me there was again a bright side. Imagine if I was living in the US and had forgotten to put on my seatbelt. I can picture the US cop waving me down, and me going for my seat belt buckle, and the panicked cop pumping seven bullets into me in front of my kid.

India may be a Third World Country, but in some ways we are better off than the First Worlders.

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