Right signals, but will they work in Chennai?

To jaded Indians, many of whom see people getting killed, maimed or simply terrorised by vehicles on the roads frequently, the common traffic signal is only a device holding marginal interest.

The world over, a traffic light is what keeps the automobile and the non-motorised road users from becoming involved in a fatal encounter. In fact, the history of the traffic light is itself traceable to Garrett Morgan a black inventor who reportedly came up with the device after watching the horrifying outcome of an accident, and then sold it to General Electric in 1923.

None of the horror that overcame Morgan will affect Indians, though, who routinely ignore traffic signals and treat it as nothing more than a nuisance and safety as something that is predetermined by the Almighty. In fact, management expert S.Raghunathan even uses the traffic lights analogy for a game theory analysis in his book “Games Indians Play” on why Indians are born losers — they just cannot see the benefits of cooperation; to them, beating the other man to it is what constitutes intelligence. The result is there for all of us to see each day, in the form of dead and injured people, battered and dented cars, mangled bicycles and a losing insurance business.

That preamble is only to draw attention to the Chennai City Traffic Police move, announced through The Hindu today, to operate traffic lights not just during the day, but also at night on select roads (story is here). The idea is that the roads are particularly dangerous at night and a lot of serious accidents take place during the midnight to dawn hours.

That is excellent intent, but the record of our CCTP with respect to enforcement (in terms of vehicular traffic and obstructions caused by civic agencies, shops and other commerce) leave us all a little dismayed. For one thing, the police are improving what is already above average by domestic standards: Anna Salai, EVR Periyar Salai, Kamarajar Salai, ECR, OMR and so on. It is easy to enforce traffic here, simply with the help of a few constables who can use digital still cameras to photograph offenders, punch big holes in driving licences and if necessary, lock up those drivers who are murderous.

The problem is much worse in some pockets, where people are pitted against vehicles with nary a foot of space to walk on the road margins. I come back to the point of how the prosperous police (who collected, officially, Rs.10 crores in fines in 2007) needs to look at building pedestrian facilities – sidewalks or footpaths and subways across roads at a distance of 100 metres on all important city roads.

The idea of using mobile cameras fitted to jeeps is not new. The Institute for Road Traffic Education in Delhi started the practice way back in the early 1990s. They offered the know-how to Chennai Traffic Police when Mr. Sekar, IPS was the Deputy Commissioner of Traffic. For some strange reason, or perhaps not so strange reason, the Police shooed the IRTE away. Cameras are a damn nuisance because they might end up recording a lot of evidence, and if someone demands that the tape be produced in Court, particularly with reference to VIPs, it might cause huge embarrassments.

Of course, these are not the unkind questions that our media will ask our IPS officers. The media may not even be aware, for instance, how cameras are actually used. Will they record continuously? Or will there be time-lapse videography that enables recording of important information but not continuously? Can the tapes be asked for under the Right to Information Act? After all, they are only records of public roads and events for everyone to see.

It would also be interesting to see what the motor vehicle insurers make of all this. It is technically feasible, for instance, for insurers to look at the tapes and hike the premiums for the rotten drivers. That would put the fear of God in the minds of our lawless Indica taxi drivers serving our IT moguls, of VIP and political trash who think they own the road and our muscular MTC drivers whose driving habits are insured by trade unions.

Interestingly, the Police said in March 2008 in The Hindu (that report is here) that they will be putting up 80 new surveillance cameras for traffic, and that some old ones are already working for some time (we have not seen the results of this, though). This is the same story as the pedestrian actuated traffic light, for people to cross. They tried one, just one, on Kamarajar Salai in the late nineties. Can anyone tell me where it is?







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