December 25, 2011

Interesting experience at an intersection

A recent experience at an intersection resulted in me wondering about law, human thought processes and the quality of our public service. These five tragi-comic minutes gave me a few answers but raised many more.

I stopped at a red light on a busy street. This being a rush hour, I was behind four or five vehicles in the right "lane". When the light changed to green, I started moving (inching) but could make only a few feet into the intersection when the amber came on. I was staring at a red pretty soon.

My understanding of the Indian traffic rules is that you can enter an intersection if the light is still green irrespective of whether you can make it to the other end within the available time. Once you enter the intersection, you gain priority over other drivers. You can then continue to drive even if the light changes.

Armed with this understanding, I continued to drive at 0 kph. A cop appeared out of thin air and asked me to stop. He asked for my driver license and pocketed it. I tried to explain but he would have none of it. Apparently they taught him a different set of rules. He pointed out that the bus on my left had stopped bang in the middle of the intersection (blocking traffic partially). He felt this was OK as there was enough room for the cross traffic to maneuver their way around.

Soon the light changed to green and the cop asked me to cross the intersection and pull over to the left. With all the traffic, this was not easy for me to do  as I had to cut across 3-4 "lanes", traffic turning left from the intersection and the other distractions you find. It was a good 100+ feet before I could reach a safe spot but there was already another car parked there. As the driver had left his hazard lights on, I assumed this was a fellow "violator". I crossed this car, switched on my own hazard lights and parked a dozen feet behind.

Mindful the cop had my license with him, I started walking back. Sure enough he had abandoned his post and was walking towards me. He explained to me that the challan would be mailed, returned my license and took out a trendy looking camera.

The cop proceeded to take pictures of the other car, not mine. The other driver returned around this time, smiled weakly and said he was leaving any moment now. The cop smiled back, said it was OK and returned to his position.

I started wondering how he could forgot which vehicle he ordered to pull over. The two vehicles differed on size, make, color and every conceivable parameter.

I grew up  with a healthy disrespect for policemen and this did not change much with years. I tend to agree when people around me say "khatmals" have "brains in knees". This incident did not help correct the impression!

I realize the man is underpaid, overworked and under-trained. Thanks to  the notorious 14f, he is probably from a remote small town, not used to the ways of a big city. He was almost certainly out of his depth and unequal to the demands of the strenuous job. I must also acknowledge he neither demanded a bribe nor was rude.

Yet I can't stop wondering how the system can run when the rules are unclear to those who have to follow and those expected to enforce them. How can you expect improvement through hardware (swanky camera) alone without the support structures (training, work conditions etc.)? What happened to the maxim that prevention is better than cure? When will we learn the virtues of urban planning and public transit?