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Engaging India: Crackdown on 'noisy' driving

December 14, 2007 13:54 IST

Engaging India is an online column analysing the issues, trends and forces behind the business and politics shaping India and its impact on the world. Engaging India appears Thursday mornings exclusively on India, a dedicated online section on India, and is written by Jo Johnson, the Financial Times' South Asia bureau chief; Amy Yee, New Delhi correspondent; and Joe Leahy, Mumbai correspondent.

The cacophony of honking car horns is an immutable feature of most South Asian metropolises.

Nowhere is this truer than in Mumbai, where frustrated drivers blow their horns incessantly, as though the noise alone will be enough to clear the Indian financial capital's choked streets of traffic and get them to their meetings on time.

Though the city has long had electronic signs placed at major intersections imploring drivers not to "honk" near the High Court and other institutions, most viewed these as cosmetic, a sop to the sensitivities of tourists or visiting high officials.

But now the Mumbai traffic police, in a move that runs against the very culture of driving in this city of 18m, have begun cracking down on noisy motorists.

Police have booked 368 car owners for shrill and "non-regulation" horns and for violating silence zones that prohibit honking near hospitals, educational institutions and places of worship, according to the Mumbai traffic police website.

The offending horns ranged from the shrill high-pressure variety used by trucks on the sub-continent to other kinds that have been modified to play the latest Bollywood melodies or even to sound like dogs barking.

Amazingly, in a culture in which noisy fanfare is an intimate accompaniment of most activities, from weddings to religious festivals, the media even found some anti-noise activists to quote for their stories on the anti-honking drive. "This drive will help in improving the quality of life for all of us," a Pradip Indulkar, founder of one group, Joint Area Action Group, said in the Sunday Mumbai Mirror.

But the crackdown on noise is just one part of a more serious campaign against reckless behaviour among the city's drivers. The most determined effort has been an unprecedented drive against drunk drivers in the city.

An electronic sign above one of Mumbai's busiest intersections, at the landmark Haji Ali mosque in south Mumbai, provides a real-time update of the number of drivers arrested for drink driving each day. More than 11,213 cases of drunk driving had been registered as of Wednesday, 11 times the number for all of last year.

India's rising road accident problem is part of a global traffic death epidemic that is disproportionately afflicting developing countries. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.2m people die and over 50 times that many are injured every year in road accidents.

Road accidents are the leading cause of death globally for those between 10 and 24 years of age. They cost developing countries between $65bn and $100bn a year, more than the total annual amount they receive in development aid.

By 2020, the WHO predicts road crash injuries will be the third highest threat to public health, outranking other problems such as tuberculosis and HIV/Aids.

The World Bank estimates road traffic fatalities in South Asia will increase from 135,000 in 2000 to 330,000 by 2020, with most of them in India. China and India are vying for top place in terms of road traffic deaths.

RR Patil, the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, the state that contains Mumbai, said in an interview in October that every year 11,000 people die on Mumbai's roads, leaving up to 50,000 families traumatized.

In developing countries like India most of those killed are pedestrians. This is especially true in Mumbai where many construction workers and migrants from rural areas are forced to squat in roadside shanties because of a lack of housing.

Concern over dangerous driving in Mumbai came to the fore in 2002 after Bollywood actor Salman Khan lost control of his car and ran over pavement dwellers in the popular seaside area of Bandra. More recently, a middle-class youth, Alistair Pereira, killed seven people while driving allegedly under the influence of alcohol.

The police have since extended their campaign to include all forms of dangerous driving, such as using mobile phones while behind the wheel, speeding and driving without tail lights – a particular problem for the city's fleet of jalopy 1950s-style taxis.

The campaign has been hailed by civil activists and others alike who are tired of the carnage and chaos on the roads. But not everyone is happy. There have been complaints about over-zealous magistrates after one judge jailed three drivers for using mobile phones while driving.

And one driver was featured in the Mumbai Mirror complaining that he was detained after being pulled up for having alcohol on his breath.

The police, he protested, would not even accept a bribe – the usual settlement for any traffic infringement in Mumbai.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

Joe Leahy, Mumbai correspondent