As prosperity clogs roads, India's drivers yield to no one

A new report calls for strong global measures to counter the growing problem of traffic deaths.

From his tiny Maruti sedan, Shrichand Indora is trying to change Indian driving habits, one student at a time.

As a city of apparent race-car drivers swirls around him, Mr. Indora calmly teaches a first-time driver - a housekeeper named Minu Yacub - the proper etiquette of the road.

"Look at this fellow, this is wrong," he says, momentarily taking the wheel from the frazzled Mrs. Yacub. Her eyes still bugged out from her first near-accident, Yacub takes the wheel back reluctantly. "We have the right of way," says Indora. "But not everybody goes to driving school, they don't know the rules. And they just don't have patience."

What Indora knows but doesn't say is that driving is getting more dangerous. According to a World Health Organization report released earlier this month, more than 3,200 people around the world die each day from traffic accidents. Without drastic measures now, traffic deaths could increase by a further 65 percent, becoming the third-leading cause of death by 2020, ahead of tuberculosis, war, and HIV.

The problem is projected to hit developing countries the hardest, and particularly fast-growing, densely populated countries like India. Here, prosperity is a two-edged sword, bringing more personally owned automobiles, scooters, or motorcycles, but also more fatalities.

It's a problem Rajeev Talwar, Delhi's commissioner for transport, knows well.

"Delhi has more vehicles than Mumbai [Bombay], Calcutta, and Chennai combined, but it has more deaths, too," he says, noting that Delhi has more than 1,700 traffic deaths per year, an average of five per day. "We definitely need to take strong measures, we can't just regulate this and say we won't let the number of vehicles increase. We need to provide better roads and better movement of traffic. And people need to learn to obey the laws."

But the problem of fatal road accidents is clearly a worldwide phenomenon, as much a product of a globalized spirit of impatience as of any other factor. In the US, for instance, 4,808 pedestrians were killed and 71,000 injured in 2002, the last year for which figures are available from the US Department of Transportation. Most pedestrian fatalities occurred in urban areas, and the largest percentage of pedestrians, 23 percent, were children ages 5 to 9.

"We need a sustained effort to change behavior" to reduce the toll of deaths, said Mirta Roses, director of the Pan American Health Organization, speaking at a recent event in Washington. "We are really concerned about problems like this one, which is largely preventable."

Worldwide, the cost of traffic deaths is already steep. With 1.2 million people dying from traffic accidents each year (and another 50 million injured), road accidents cost nearly $518 billion per year.

For lower- and middle-income countries, the economic toll can be especially harsh. The economic cost of road accidents in poorer countries amounts to nearly $65 billion per year, more than these countries receive in development assistance.

Solving the problem of traffic congestion, of course, will require even more money to build more and more roads.

In Delhi - which has some 4 million automobiles, 600,000 motorized three-wheel rickshaws, uncounted bicycles and bullock-carts - new roads, bypasses, and concrete flyovers give the city a look of constantly being dug up.

In addition, Delhi is rapidly building a multibillion-dollar public subway rail system, which is expected to open fully next year.

Yet even with these major projects, many city planners expect Delhi's traffic to remain just as congested as today, as 100,000 new vehicles are added to the city's roads each year.

Yet a drive through the streets of Delhi can leave one with the impression that the scourge of traffic deaths is mainly a matter of poor driving skills rather than poor roads.

Take a drive through a traffic roundabout - a meeting of four or five or six roads, with a round traffic island in the center. Traffic rules dictate that those already in the roundabout have the right away, and those just entering the roundabout should let them pass.

But for Delhi drivers, the laws of physics hold more sway.

Mass and speed - in the form of large public buses - generally get the right of way, and those buses which already have dents from previous high-speed encounters usually have no need - or inclination - to use their brakes.

By law, drivers are required to stop and look both ways before entering a major thoroughfare. In practice, Delhi drivers often speed up and barge their way into traffic, hoping that other cars will make way.

And then, of course, there are the traffic lights.

Judging from behavior, it would appear that most Delhi drivers consider red lights to be optional, like good manners on a hockey rink.

"It's almost considered a national pastime to jump a red light," says Mr. Talwar, the traffic commissioner of Delhi. "It ensures a level of adrenaline, a cheap pleasure."

Back at Indora's driving school, Minu Yacub is negotiating her way through a herd of 20 cattle that has found its way into one of the poshest neighborhoods in New Delhi, Vasant Vihar.

Like much of India, Delhi has laws to prevent livestock from wandering the streets; but the cow is revered in India, and these laws are rarely enforced.

After following the lumbering cattle for about a minute, Mr. Indora advises her to look for oncoming traffic, and then pass the cattle on the right-hand side.

Once back on the proper side of the road - which in India is the left side - Indora is forced to take the wheel again, as Yacub steers the car a little too close to a stretch of bushes and then a push-cart full of spicy Indian snacks.

"No problem, just straighten it out," he says, calmly steering the car just inches away from the pushcart, and then back into the street.

Just a few meters later, there is yet another obstacle: a businessman in a safari suit standing in the middle of the road, talking on his mobile phone.

"My God, he doesn't even move to save his life," Indora mutters.

Once the car is parked, Indora says that in the next lesson Yacub will learn to use the brake pedal and the accelerator. Yacub says there will be no next lesson.

"This time, I was just steering and nobody died," she laughs, "but if you make me use those pedals, somebody will surely die."

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