New Delhi Traffic - How Snarled Was It?

FOR thrills and chills galore, there's nothing like a ride in New Delhi traffic. Overloaded buses, people clinging to the sides, careen through intersections, barely halting to cough out passengers and suck in more.

Two-seat scooter rickshaws and motorcycles roar at high speed, just missing pedestrians, bicycles, horse and camel wagons, and vendors pushing carts. Motor scooters chug along with dad and one kid up front and mom and two more perched behind.

Herds of meandering cows, chanting religious processions, or noisy political protests cause maddening traffic snarls. Sometimes, a lumbering, heavily loaded elephant is the only conveyance to stop for a red light.

And always, the ever-present horn blare, prompting one pundit to designate it India's 15th national language.

Delhi's urban chaos is every police chief's nightmare. ``It's a rat race and a no-win situation,'' sighs Police Commissioner Rajavijay Karan. ``Delhi's traffic is terrible because people just don't know what road discipline is.''

About 40,000 Indians die in road accidents every year, the worst casualty rate in the world. Many of those are in Delhi.

Lacking a commuter rail network, this sprawling Indian capital of 7 million people is clogged with 1.4 million vehicles, more than Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras put together. About 200,000 are added yearly.

There are many culprits in Delhi's traffic madness. One is vehicles' breakneck speed, averaging about 17 miles per hour, police officials say, compared with 13 in London, 10.5, in Paris, and 10 in New York.

Many bus drivers are poorly trained; they bribed their way into jobs. Newspapers frequently carry reports of ``absconding'' bus drivers fleeing the accident scene. One recent day in Delhi, one person was killed and 100 hurt in four major accidents, three of them caused by city buses.

The presence of the new zippy Maruti, an Indian version of the Suzuki compact, adds to the havoc. For years, Indians plodded along in the stolid Ambassador, a replica of the 1953 British Morris Oxford. Indian streets looked like a 1950s movie set.

Now, liberated by the small car's pickup, affluent Maruti owners fly around the city and show a cockiness that poses a growing traffic menace.

Cows, many of them emaciated and all of them sacred, are also a major headache. ``Many people from the countryside bring cattle to the city and let them squat anywhere,'' complains Mr. Karan, the police chief. ``The city authorities are responsible, and we tell them to take the cows. But they don't do it. What can the police do? Where can we take them?''

In July, new national motor vehicle legislation went into force, tightening up driving license requirements, setting heavy fines for traffic violations, and establishing stiff pollution standards.

Drivers across India, where flouting laws and rules is a national pastime, shrieked in protest. Car owners complained the stiff fines would spur more corruption among traffic police who often are quick to pocket a fine or a bribe. In Delhi, scooter rickshaw and taxi drivers went on strike for a day, paralyzing traffic in the city.

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