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Have a safe year!

December 27, 2003

The problem with being a motoring writer is that more often than not, I am celebrating the cause of the car. Or bike. Or for that matter anything that moves.

You see the unique tribe of motoring journalists are what they are because they love machines to begin with and are hence biased towards them.

No, they will never recommend public transport to their readers, nor would they tell you that the car he just test drove is far too powerful than what you actually require or worse still, that it can be a dangerous tool in your hands.

But I am writing this on Christmas eve and I am going to speak my mind. Of course, it is not going to be as much fun as taking you for a spirited test drive in an exciting new car through an exciting new landscape.

In any case, I have done that many a time over the last few years. Someone did say that you say honest things during Christmas, right? If what follows sounds a bit Biblical, I am sorry-- but do read on because sincerely, I don't want you to be.

You want to live. Close to 100,000 people lose their lives on roads every year in India and the figure is on the rise.

Reasons are many -- growing number of vehicles and infrastructure that has not kept pace, is one. Lack of medical facilities (such as trauma care centres) along major roads for accident victims is another.

India is blazing through a period where serious technology overlaps are costing lives -- you have cars that can go very fast and roads that cannot handle anything more than 60 kph. There exists a draconian speed limit -- but it is not enforced just because it is not practical to have vehicle traffic moving at 60 kph.

While cars and motorcycles are getting faster, 99 percent of buses and trucks in use in our country belong to another era altogether. They are too slow, overloaded, badly maintained and mostly driven by people who are not trained well enough.

The average Indian truck driver is underpaid and lives a nomadic, unhealthy life. Still, these drivers are known for trying their best to make our roads safer.

So stop blaming them, and try to understand their limitations -- even if that means being ultra cautious when you are passing a truck.

We still depend on truck chassis to build buses that carry people and headlines such as '40 dead as bus plunges to river' are so common that they get single column treatment in newspapers.

Yes, roads are getting better but without some degree of discipline from road users, we will lose more people on the road. There is no hiding it - driving or riding on Indian roads is an extremely dangerous thing to do and it is up to you to drive/ride safely till the system catches up.

Buy them for safety. You like a car for its price, fuel efficiency and looks? It's time you, the Indian car buyer grew up and started looking for 'safe' cars.

If you, the buyer, starts demanding safety features in cars, car makers will have no option but to give India safer cars.

For now, we are being taken for a ride. Being a price-sensitive, developing market means cars that are proclaimed safe in, say, Europe, America and Japan, are passed on to India minus some key safety features such as air-bags and anti-lock braking systems.

While most cars have crumple zones that can absorb an impact, the above gadgets go a long way in making your car safer.

If a car has not been crash tested for crash worthiness (most people-movers we have in India are not) then it is not worth buying them to ferry people. Please start asking questions about safety next time you visit a showroom.

Think safe. India builds and sells close to 500,000 two-wheelers every month, making it one of the world's largest two wheeler markets.

All these machines are designed to carry two adults, but we have entire families traveling on them. It is unavoidable in India and we cannot expect policemen to stop every motorcycle with two adults and three kids doing the balancing act on our roads.

But avoid such stunts. Helmets do save lives and it is sheer stupidity not to wear proper head gear (and please, not the ones you can buy from the road side vendor) while you are riding a two wheeler.

A safety hint to Indian women -- by wearing a churidar or trousers and sitting astride makes motorcycling a great deal safer for you.

So shun that sari while riding pillion and stop sitting sideways on motorcycles -- it is not done in any country in the world except India and for good reason too. Mothers of this nation, insist on taking a bus instead of a two-wheeler when you have to travel with children.

Passive driving. It is up to you to understand the machine that you have bought -- more than its abilities to stretch the fuel or go very fast, its limitations when it comes to braking, roadholding and handling require more understanding.

Once you have 'learnt' your machine, you should strive to become a passive driver or rider. By the word 'passive' I mean drivers and riders who don't get into trouble to begin with.

A passive driver/rider will plan his journey in such a way that he doesn't have to drive excessively fast to reach on time, calculate his overtaking maneuvers and never take chances with oncoming traffic, will think about other machines around him and the limitations their drivers have.

Studies have proved that women who have just learnt to drive, are a more cautious and safer lot than most men who claim to be experts, with years of driving behind them.

Teach drivers to drive -- not kids. Alright, you have bought a nice new car and hired a driver and entrusted your life to him. Not a good idea.

Chances are that the driver is not familiar with your car and he may put you and your family in peril by making dangerous mistakes. Let the driver get to grips with the car, its acceleration, speed, braking ability and handling.

If you are used to driving modern cars then do give a few tips to your driver -- it is not enough of you to expect the driver to go fast and save fuel, you see. And do treat the driver well -- he is also human, and requires food and sufficient sleep. Remember, it is he who will be at the controls of your car.

Your car is not the ideal place for bonding with your children. Do not, I repeat, do not teach your children how to drive or ride before they are at least 17 years of age.

I have heard of more than one incident when children lost their lives trying to show-off in dad's car. Ditto with motorcycles. When your children are 17, do take them through a 'proper' driving school, and help them become good, passive drivers.

Passenger trouble. Your car or motorcycle is not the place to have a family quibble. It is the responsibility of the passengers to make sure that the driver is concentrating on driving and nothing else.

Never ever have heated arguments with the driver. While it is nice of passengers to talk to the driver to prevent him from falling asleep behind the wheel, it will be even nicer of them to demand the driver to take some rest before hitting the road again.

By 'driver' I don't necessarily mean chauffeurs -- it can be your husband, wife or children (grown-up) too.

It is important for drivers and passengers to wear seat belts -- unbelted rear passengers can cause serious injuries to belted front passengers in the event of a collision. Children should always be in the rear seat of the car and they must wear belts -- it's much safer that way.

Otherwise, use a child seat that's specifically meant for using with the front passenger seat (sad, even our metro dwellers are not used to this brilliant safety device yet).

Don't drive. You have bought a new car and the entire family wants to go for a long drive -- maybe to a hill station. Deep inside, you know that you are not yet used to driving on the highway.

So be prudent and don't show off -- tell them you are not equipped to driving on highways. A hurt ego is better than wiped out families. I know I am using tough words here, but it is necessary to drive the point home.

Driving in the night is safe in many developed countries, but in India, with its narrow highways and drivers who does not believe in using the low-beam, it certainly is not.

So avoid night driving as much as possible. I don't have to say that drinking and driving does not mix and the same applies to talking on mobile phones too. SMS? Please stop the car when you get the urge.

Hire or not to hire. Most of the time these accidents occur when families travel together for functions like weddings or visiting holy shrines.

Mini buses, jeeps and cars are packed to the brim and the driver is given a deadline -- all of which is a recipe for disaster. An overloaded vehicle does not respond to driver's commands in the normal way and by asking the driver to go fast, you are only inviting trouble.

So, if you are responsible for organising transport for functions in your family, make sure you spend some more money on an additional vehicle or two or better still one big vehicle. And plan your trip such a way that the journey is enjoyable. You see, most of us believe that accidents happen to others and unfortunately continue to do the same mistakes 'others' have made.

Maintenance. I have seen people buying expensive cars but raising their eye-brows when they get expensive service bills. Remember, you are trusting your lives to the machine and the machine needs care. Do visit authorised service stations and buy original spare parts.

Do not compromise on tyres -- those four contact patches on the road are very important for vehicle dynamics, so do replace the tyres if they are worn out. Maintaining your car or two-wheeler in good shape is a good way to avoid an accident.

Insurance. Do not drive without proper cover -- to you, your passengers, vehicle and people whom you may hit (very possible in our country, hence).

Don't even borrow a car without checking the paperwork. I know I have painted a terrible picture of our roads but then that, dear reader, is the state of affairs in our country and it takes to be much more than a good driver to be safe. Remember, the system has not caught up yet and you don't want to be a victim. Make sure you spread the 'caution' word.

New Year promises a lot. A whole lot of new cars and two-wheelers will be launched and lakhs of people will start driving or riding. Trust me to take you for one romantic test drive after another in 2004. Have a safe year though.



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