Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Progress of Safety - Indian Style

So for any of you who may have recollections of 70s travel on India's famed GT road, things are much different, generally for the better. My childhood trips to India virtually always involved an accident of some form or another. Once my father, grandfather and I got ran off the road by a bus overtaking another -- our motorcycle went down, and we all suffered some serious breakage. I can't recall a single trip to India during that period where at least someone we knew was not in a serious accident.

Now things are very different. The road from Delhi to Amritsar in general segregates traffic moving to Delhi, from that moving away from Delhi. I'm no traffic engineer, but in general, this seems a good thing. In addition, the moon crater size pot holes, while by no means an endangered species, generally have dwindled on main thoroughfares. Things get even more amazing -- many cities now have very strict helmet and seat belt laws. When you look out onto the streets, it really looks like the laws are being enforced, and folks are following them. But on closer inspection, I realize this is not quite the case.

Upon entering a taxi, virtually every one of them tells you to put on your seat belt. So I reach for my belt, and realize there is no buckle on the end -- its been cut off. The driver usually smiles and says something like, "just lay it across your lap, so the police won't notice." I was wandering the bazaar and noticed a man selling helmets - they looked like hard baseball caps. He had a pair of scissors and was busy cutting off the straps. I asked him what good a helmet was with no straps -- he looked at me like I was completely daft, "so the police don't bother you, obviously."

I also realize that woman don't wear helmets. So I ask my driver why that's the case -- he says, "oh the ladies were furious that their hair was being messed up. Woman have many rights you know. Men in the goverment also realized that so much of life's beauty is gone if one can no longer see woman and their long flowing hair on the back of a motorcycle." All I could think was, ok, here's a country with an out of control infanticide rate driving a major gender imbalance, and the government decides to start favoring women by allowing them the option to die in statistically larger numbers. After thinking about it for a while, I realize I'm wrong -- after all, the straps are cut off the mens helmets, and there is no functioning Snell helmet approval organization, so virtually anyone can manufacture helmets; they can even make them out of tupperware if they want to.

The best part, of course, is that if you have 500 rupees on you, you can totally ignore the laws, since a little palm grease goes a long way. And I must say, all cynicism aside, it really is liberating knowing that virtually every law out there is easily skirted, leaving one completely free to do what they want. Our kids love romping around seat belt free in the car. And in general I let them, not just since the belts are broken, but back in 70s America, that's how I grew up.

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