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The Price Of Indiscipline

Where investments are made in overhead or underground pedestrian crossings, they are minimally used, and a railing on the divider is also added at an additional cost

Photo Credit : Volvo Trucks


Most of us, as a rule, are prone to break the rule. We see and experience this every day, on so many occasions in our daily life, but nowhere is this rule-flouting as visible as on our roads. The previous edition of this column listed – tongue-in-cheek – the virtues and benefits of violating driving rules and ignoring discipline (“Wrong-Side Driving”, BW 20 May, 2023). This column looks at the obverse: the negative consequences of indiscipline, and the cost it imposes on society.

On busy roads of every city in India, one will see railings on the central divider, at least for some part of the road. Anyone unfamiliar with the country will wonder as to their purpose. We know, of course, that these are intended to stop pedestrians from crossing the road wherever they please. Such crossing not only affects the flow of traffic, but puts the walker at serious risk. Given the possible bodily harm that could occur, rationality would dictate that such a crossing is irrational and unwise, especially when safety is better assured by walking a few hundred metres (or less) to the nearest traffic signal or to a marked “zebra crossing”. If the discipline of doing so is followed, there would be no necessity for spending a large amount of money on installing a railing on the divider.

This seems like a win-win situation: following the basic principle of using a designated place for crossing the road will ensure safety for the pedestrian; smooth driving for the vehicle (with no need for a sudden stop and the possible hit by a vehicle from behind; or the worse result of hitting a pedestrian); and a saving of unnecessary cost (of the railing) for the city or state. Despite these obvious plus factors, why do people cross where they please and thereby necessitate railings?

One reason is that cars – and especially motorbikes – are unlikely to stop at a zebra crossing to give priority to walkers, unless there is a traffic signal there. At junctions where there are traffic signals, most permit a “free left” (turn), resulting in a continuous flow of vehicles and making it difficult for pedestrians to cross easily. An additional reason is that we are attuned to taking a short-cut in every situation: so, few will bother to walk the extra few hundred metres to the nearest crossing, even if it is an overhead pedestrian walkway with escalators (not uncommon in Delhi). Amplifying the nudge to negative behaviour is the fact that most walkers have little confidence that vehicles will stop for them at marked crossings. So, the only safe solution is to instal railings, and suffer the unnecessary cost.

Where investments are made in overhead or underground pedestrian crossings, they are minimally used, and a railing on the divider is also added at additional cost. In a further irony, even after this, the more agile pedestrians are seen honing their obstacle-course skills by jumping over the divider-railing! Not to be left behind, there are often man-made gaps created in the divider by intrepid vehicle drivers who find it a pain to drive a kilometre to the next u-turn. Of course, as spelt out in a previous piece, this saves time and fuel, resulting in individual and national benefit!

Often, pedestrians too join the show, helpfully creating a short-cut for all by dismantling part of the railing, thereby facilitating a quick dart across the road at whatever point enables them to minimise their walking. Traffic police, if deployed, seem generally unaware of any rule or convention that requires cars to stop for pedestrians at marked crossings or for the latter to not cross wherever they please. Policepersons – like the drivers – apparently believe that cars have right of way anywhere on the roads; also, that there are no rules for pedestrians. Of course, many cities have signboards that proclaim some areas as “no tolerance zones” (of traffic violations, one presumes); maybe all other areas are “no enforcement zones”!

Generally, there are no footpaths, indicative of a belief that money spent on walkways is a waste; in any event, pedestrians are habituated to walking on the road. Better, instead, to expand the road and allow it to be shared by vehicles and walkers. After all, “sharing” is a virtuous value. Where the investment on a footpath is made, it is promptly dug up (possibly to prove how wasteful such expenditure is) and then left unattended for months – sometimes permanently. If not, then the footpath is promptly occupied by hawkers, parked motorbikes, and miscellaneous debris. This happens if motorised two-wheelers have not beaten them to it, by using the footpath as an extension of the road (indeed, a good way to reduce the traffic jam on the road). In some cities, in keeping with the sharing philosophy, the virtue is extended further – on both roads and footpaths – to the animal world, with stray dogs and cattle being the primary beneficiaries.

I am yet to find data on the investments in railings, and overhead and underground crossings. Similarly, it is hard to find specific figures on the loss of human life due to road indiscipline, or the cost due to accidents caused by wrong-side driving, or resulting from vehicles ignoring lane discipline. Doubtless, it is not insubstantial. Instead of wasteful expenditure on ineffective solutions like railings, or band-aid and short-term solutions like continuously broadening roads (inevitably at the cost of footpaths), would it not be far better to invest a small amount on education and awareness-creation about road discipline, and on enforcing it? Will some city, state, or police establishment wake up and at least experiment with this solution?

*The author loves to think in tongue-in-cheek ways, with no maliciousness or offence intended. At other times, he is a public policy analyst and author. His latest book is Decisive Decade: India 2030 Gazelle or Hippo (Rupa, 2021).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Magazine 03 June 2023

Kiran Karnik

The author is an independent policy and strategy analyst, and alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad

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