Friday July 01, 2022

Driving in Lahore

November 10, 2018

Big brother is finally watching you (us) in real time. And because we’re not used to it, we’re going about our daily commute, unawares. However, all our tiny transgressions – of red lights, and lanes and what not – are being recorded. And soon enough, we get a nice little fine notice in the mail, complete with a few coloured pictures of the actual incident taking place, so that there is no room for confusion.

There are numerous issues directly related to these cameras and the auto-ticketing system which has been enforced on us. What if the car doesn’t have a camera readable number plate? Sure, there was a time when the excise and taxation teams were out in full force, breaking those fancy number plates and forcing owners to get the machine readable ones, but all that’s fizzled out innit, and all those personalised plates are back on the streets. Or, how about the fact that a car’s been sold to a new buyer, but the database hasn’t been updated? You get the idea. However, this piece isn’t about the shortcomings of this system.

It’s about the person driving the vehicle and who commits the transgressions which are now being caught on camera. It’s about what the person does before s/he even reaches the signal, to commit his or her crime.

How many times have you seen this happen on the roads: there you are, driving in your lane. There’s some reasonable traffic on the road, when suddenly you see a little space open up, on the left. You immediately check the mirrors, and leave your lane, and move into this left one. However, in that lane, there was a car that had also noticed the space and had sped up to take it as well. As you move and so does the other one, another car, right behind you sees you leaving, and decides to move in also. All hell breaks loose. Sometimes you make it into the lane, and sometimes you don’t. But the general flow of the road has been destroyed. Or how about the guy who’s been driving in the left lane all this while and only when he approaches the signal does he start blinking right and just goes for the kill. And you just sit there and wonder, what?

There are numerous other examples which we all go through every day. Overtaking from the left. Tailgating. Driving too fast or two slow in the wrong lane. You get the idea. All these actions combine to make driving in Lahore a harrowing, near-death experience. And none of these is a fineable offence. So far, anyway. But before we get to that, where have all these habits come from anyway? You’re thinking, it was probably the driving school’s fault; we should fine them to the high heavens!

But does anyone have a handle on the number of people who have learnt to drive through these driving schools? I’m willing to bet top money that most, upwards of 90 percent of drivers in Pakistan, have learnt from a family elder, or a cousin or a friend. And all that was taught really was: this is how you turn the car on, this is how you shift gears (don’t even need that now) and this is how you break. The rest you can figure out on your own. And that’s what most people do: figure it out every time they get on the road.

So okay, you learnt from your cousin Faisal and now you’re on the road. What about the licence? How did this donkey of a driver manage to pass the driving test anyway? (For those who haven’t seen it, our local driving test is designed to make everyone fail and has absolutely no link with how real driving happens – but again, that’s a conversation for another time)

The truth is, he didn’t pass the driving test, but managed to get the licence anyway. Each man has his price Zeeshan, and yours was pretty low. Things admittedly are better now than they were, but still, there is a huge number of drivers on the road who have managed to get their licences without passing the test.

As a start, the traffic department needs to start a large-scale media campaign designed to address these problems – much like it did with the seat belts. Our drivers don’t know any better because nobody told them. So let’s start with the basics. Speed limit. Distance from other vehicles. Lane discipline. Turning and overtaking etiquettes.

Make video animations for social media and TV. Posters for newspapers and billboards. Get local radio channels to run public service announcements. After sensitising the public, we move on to the next stage. Severe fines. History has proven, on so many occasions, that the best way to stop the incidence of a crime is to make its punishment severely outweigh the action. So if you find someone over-speeding, make him or her pay heavily, maybe more so than breaking a signal. In fact, if a car over-speeds to break a light, it should be fined twice. The financial pinch of the tickets, and the time lost in paying them and going to collect your ID will do wonders in ensuring that at least that driver doesn’t make the mistake again.

And if you’re able to sensitise all these drivers, what will we do about the jaywalkers – who are willing to risk life and limb by crossing a busy street when there is a pathway (over or under) made especially for them 100 metres away? Jaywalking is, as it should be, a crime in some countries. Singapore, for example, levies a fine of S$20 for a first offence, but repeat offenders can be fined nearly S$1000, along with a jail term. However, unlike Singapore, most countries that do have a jaywalking law rarely enforce it.

Till all this happens, Lahore’s traffic mess will remain as is, regardless of the number of cameras installed and e-challans administered.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @aasimzkhan