Jagral Singh Sahni is a nice guy. Even-tempered, sober and generous, one whod give away roller skates to kids who cant afford them. So when this affable, middle-aged skating coach ran over a fellow motorist last week, apparently in a fit of rage, things seemed to be a trifle out of joint.
But that, experts say, is what road rage is all about. Normal people doing crazy things behind the wheel that they wouldnt dream of doing in saner moments. Observes S.M. Sareen of the Central Road Research Institute (CRRI): "A gun in your hand, or the steering wheel. Its the same thing."
As the Capital gets increasingly congested and traffic becomes chaotic, overstressed drivers let fly at cops and fellow motorists. Often, road rage manifests itself as aggressive driving and verbal abuse but sometimes it can be literally murderous. "Road rage is nothing new, but now were seeing its extreme forms," points out well-know psychiatrist Avdesh Sharma.
Urban stress, overcrowding, poor traffic management and a complete lack of traffic sense; all this fuels road rage. The majority of Delhis drivers have experienced it at some time or the other. Says boutique-owner and driver Geeta Vyas: "Indisciplined pedestrians, cyclists and two- and three-wheelers weaving through traffic, children playing on the roads, cattle and stray dogs squatting all over the place."
And there is more to add to a drivers chagrin. Adds she: "Also, there are road repairs and police checkposts during rush-hour and bus drivers stopping in the middle of the road. On top of it all, there are drivers who heckle you for obeying the rules and jokers who park their car in gear blocking yours. Its frustrating." Road rage breeds more rage; its a vicious cycle.
Although the phenomenon is relatively unexplored in India, studies abroad have shown that the road rager is not your run-of-the-mill violent criminal-he could be a macho young speedster on a testosterone high, but hes equally likely to be a respectable, middle-aged, well-off guy.
Several factors can turn Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. Avers Sareen: "When you get behind the wheel, you assimilate the power of your machine. Your personality undergoes a change. If youre already psychologically vulnerable, it can drive you crazy."
Sharmas understanding of the phenomenon is also similar: "It has to do with body image. When you sit behind the wheel, your body image expands-your personal space is not just your body, but the whole car. The more crowded the road, the more compressed your personal space. You feel physically threatened." More people, he says, are carrying their frustrations on to the road. Always in a hurry, they tend to operate on very short fuses.
In Delhi, experts feel an important factor fuelling road rage is the conviction that one can get away with it. The road rager, typically, doesnt spare a thought as to the consequences, secure in the belief that with the right connections and financial muscle, theres no payback.
Says joint commissioner of police Amod Kanth: "Its a belief that you can get away with anything. A man in an expensive car and with a mobile phone is more likely to be a road rager. He has utter disregard, even contempt, for the law."
In that sense, Kanth believes, the BMW case (January 10, 1999) in which two rich youngsters mowed down five people was also one of road rage. "I spoke to the boys. It wasnt that they had not seen the policemen at the barricades. But they were drunk, not just on alcohol, but on a sense of power and wealth. " And money power did come to their rescue. They were acquitted.
A similar arrogance appears to have characterised the assaulters of The Indian Express special correspondent B.S. Nagaraj. Well-connected to senior Congress politicians, they beat him to pulp and broke his arm for not having yielded right of way on a Ghaziabad road. Bureau of police research and development chief B.R. Nanda agrees: "There are two attitudes at work here-a disregard for the rules and the conviction that you will never get caught, because someone will get you off the hook."
SAYS former Mumbai traffic commissioner P.S. Pasricha: "Compared to Delhi, people in Mumbai are more pleasant. I dont remember any deaths due to a fight after an accident. In Delhi, its all a matter of prestige. Theyre more aggressive here."
Constables are frequent targets of road ragers. Last month (April 5, 2000) a zonal officer who attempted to challan a driver for using a mobile phone while driving was dragged along clinging to the cars bonnet for several kilometres. Last June, a constable who tried to remove an unauthorisedly parked car was beaten up by the owners. In South Extension in November last year, constables who attempted to stop a vehicle were almost run over. And in March in the previous year, a woman ran over an assistant sub-inspector who tried to challan her for jumping a red light. In Sareens opinion, 70 per cent of all accidents are caused by human factors, which makes traffic psychology an important subject. In Germany, diagnostic interviews are conducted with drivers who hold responsible jobs.
Experts agree that traffic management needs to improve to prevent congestion and that enforcement of rules and dispensing of driving licenses needs to get stricter. The BPRD is working on a 20-year perspective plan for Delhi covering all these aspects plus manpower planning.
But the buck stops with the person behind the wheel. He has to learn how to manage stress and time pressure.