As I was sitting in a rickshaw a few days ago – trying to make my way across town in the it’s-Friday-so-everybody-wants-to-get-home traffic, I remembered a conversation I had with a co-worker when I was in Istanbul a few weeks ago – about a trend of reckless driving in the developing countries (and some developed, as well!) .
We were discussing which country had the craziest drivers. After the unsuccessful attempt of reaching a conclusion, I kind of realized that pretty much every country I’ve traveled through over the last few months, as well as the places that I’ve heard about from other travellers, seem to be competing for the title of the “World’s Unsafest Drivers.”
Certainly, it’s easy to make a case that in a lot of these places, people have to deal with traffic, bad roads, poor signals, and tons of cars, which is why they are forced to drive like this. But hey – coming from New York, I can relate to that. Yet, you typically won’t see 6 cars trying to squeeze into a 3-lane road on the FDR Drive nor will you see motorcyclists riding on the sidewalk in order to get ahead.
In fact, relatively speaking, New York has has the politest drivers and cabbies I’ve seen anywhere over the last 4 months. While you’re bound to frequently encounter unsafe drivers in NYC or anywhere else, here it seems to be more of a whole culture of bad driving and, more importantly, disregard for safety.
Even if you take the actual driving aside, it seems that a lot of the drivers don’t seem to be particularly concerned for their own safety or safety of their passengers or pedestrians. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen motorcyclists ride on the roads of Mumbai with their helmet hanging on their handlebars rather than their heads. In the rare occasion that the driver of the bike may wear the helmet, the passenger (if there is one) almost never does. Protective gear? Non-existant.
Seatbelts, it appears, are a taboo in every place I’ve been to this year. Most of the taxis in India don’t even have them (they don’t have sideview mirrors either, but that’s another story). Even if the vehicle happens to have a seatbelt, if you attempt to put it on, the driver is bound to make a joke about it or even get offended.
When you ask the locals, they’ll tell you that accidents are rare. At first, you could even believe it as the drivers here are a lot more alert and have developed excellent reflexes. You would also never see people lounging in their car seat at a 45 degree angle driving with one hand while putting on make up with the other.
But the actual statistics say otherwise. Turns out that in 1998, 6 % of the world’s road accident deaths happened in India, while India only 1 % of the world’s road vehicles. Their share of global car accidents increased to 10% in 2006. And, in Mumbai alone, you have up to 35 road accidents per day [BBC, 2005]!
For a lot of the drivers, accidents are just waiting to happen – you simply can’t avoid them in these conditions. So, if people have to ride in these conditions with this type of risk, why not take the measures to protect themselves a little more?
One could say that helmets and other protective equipment are expensive and not everybody can afford it. True. However, you have a lot of middle-class folks riding on the same bikes and cars in exactly the same way. So, that’s not always the case.
It could also be the fact that these things are not as enforced by the police. Even if you do get stopped, you can typically pay off the cop with a small bribe. It’s a much more expensive ordeal to get a ticket in the U.S. Trust me, I know 🙂
But, as a whole, it seems to be a cultural and an educational thing – whereas the risks are just not perceived to be that great and nobody really talks about them.
Any other thoughts?