Why Indians (Don’t!) break traffic law

April 11, 2018

Today evening, I was involved in an auto accident. A Tata Ace swerved to the left and hit my auto. We were not hurt because both vehicles were going slow due to the traffic. But that also meant that they got stuck to each other. My auto driver cursed the other driver at the top of his voice (which actually wasn’t audible; again due to the traffic) and told him to steer away. The other driver was visibly shaken at the accident and also because he made an error. He raised his hands in apology and then did as my driver has asked him. At the same time, my driver also steered away from the truck ie to our left. And promptly hit a scooter driver by an uncle! It was the turn of the Uncle to scream in anger and it was the auto driver who was folding hands to say sorry and then waving towards the truck driver to blame him. The truck driver played oblivious to the existence of the other two drivers. No real harm done; all three vehicles moved as the traffic moved.

In all this while, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from screaming at all three of them. I almost pointed out to all three of them that as per traffic rules, overtaking is always from the right. And that they all must be NRIs from USA where overtaking is from the left. If I had said all this, all of them would have looked at me as if I am an idiot and from another country. The Uncle may have even tried to educate me on the correct traffic rules. I am sure because I have been through such situations many times. I know its pointless to tell people about traffic laws in such situations and that is how I have learned to bite my tongue.

But today was different. Today, I realised that most of Indians actually do follow the traffic law. It’s just that its the traffic law they believe in and have been trained in; is not the law that is written down and passed by the Parliament. Most Indians believe that overtaking from left is the correct method and they see everyone doing it. Now everyone can’t be wrong and therefore overtaking from left is the correct way.

While this fits the paradigm of sheep following the flock and the paradigm of social proof; there is more to this. Such behavior is so strong that its actually can be considered a type of law called Custom Law. As per Wikipedia,

Customary law (also, consuetudinary or unofficial law) exists where:

  1. a certain legal practice is observed and

  2. the relevant actors consider it to be law

Overtaking from left satisfies condition 1 clearly as most Indians do it. Almost all of them consider it to be correct and legal. That almost satisfies condition 2 as well. Almost because if the question were to come up before a court, the court would clearly say: overtake from right. Still right because the most relevant actors ie drivers and law enforcement agencies such as traffic police consider it correct. Just think of the many times that a Police vehicle overtook yours from the left side. That is a very “relevant” actor considering it to be a law.

So overtaking from left is customary law of India and Indians abide by it.

As any law graduate will tell you, written law always supersedes the customary law.  The written law says that overtaking is by the right side (Section 4 of The Road Regulation Rules 1989). Also, overtaking by left side attracts a fine of Rs 100. Almost every Indian breaks this law and should be fined. To put things in perspective, if every vehicle breaking this rule was actually fined, Mumbai Traffic Police would earn Rs 20 – 30 Cr on the first day of such an exercise! Delhi could earn Rs 60 – 90 Cr! It would probably pay that month’s salary for every traffic cop!!

But, of course, they don’t do that because they too have come to accept the customary law over written law. They also don’t do it because of obvious logistics problems but that is for senior officials. Junior police men and women accept the customary law over written law because in this they are no different from every other driver.

In short: customary traffic law trumps written traffic law.

This is actually not unusual. There are several other examples: Khap Panchayats, Triple Talaq etc. In some cases, written law is passed to incorporate customary law. For eg, the different Personal Laws on marriage. In some other cases, written law is passed to overwrite the customary law. An example is what is happening with Triple talaq.

What is unusual is that the cost of enforcing the written law in this case doesn’t lead to great measurable benefits. Imagine the efforts that need to be made by the Police. Imagine the cost of accidents and delays as drivers adapt to this “new” rule. Can you imagine any benefits from enforcing this law? I can’t. Indian Parliament might as well change the written law to say overtaking shall be from the right. No one will even notice the change. Some may argue: bus stands would need to move to the right side of the road if this is done. But why?  We have a functioning system. Very few people try to overtake a bus from left when a stand is visible ahead. Similar response would work for almost all objections.

Seriously, let’s just do it. Law should reflect the popular belief.

But while we are at this discussion, let’s also look at why such a custom has come up. I think its because no one has tried to train drivers for overtaking from left side. Most driving license holders don’t even know the traffic rules like this one. It is because they are not really required to. Most got their license from a tout. And then they looked at others to see what is right. What began as the advantage of a smaller vehicle such as a bike over a larger vehicle such as a bus, has become a custom. Bike riders turned car drivers over time and continue the same habit. And now the momentum is too big to stop.

But, there are other patterns of breaking traffic rules that are still emerging and can be stopped before Traffic Rules become something that feature only in whatsapp jokes and standup comic routines.

For eg, look at the vehicles that stop a few meters after passing a Red traffic signal. They do that because the lines that used to show where the first vehicle should stop have disappeared. For some reasons, they are not being drawn on Mumbai roads. So, some vehicle or the other overshoots the signal. Then another nudges ahead until their noses align. Still another is not happy to just match and nudges until its got a few centimeter on the rest. In doing all this, all these vehicles come in the way of incoming traffic. Put a traffic cop there and the extent of misses and nudges reduce but they are still there. Also, for every vehicle missing the line there are many which stop well behind the signal. Its a habit of a few which hasn’t become a custom yet. But if we don’t act, it will become a custom over time. And all it would take is to bring back that line that says S T O P.

Another example is bike riders driving on pavements. A few do it and get away with it. It encourages a few more to do it. Whenever you see it, you see social proof in action. One rider does it. Then another. And then many just follow them. Many more still stay on the road. Some of them are also tempted the next time. After all, who doesn’t want to reach a few mins earlier? In this case, enforcement of law can still stop a menace.

In short: making the rules clear and easy to follow plus enforcing fines on violations can still stop our traffic laws from being irrelevant. They already are when it comes to overtaking.

Image credit: Pristyles



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