“If I complain about a traffic jam, I have no one to blame but myself”—Steve Wynn
According to government statistics as of 2021, total number of road accidents was 10,429 out of which
4,721 were fatal, 5,708 were non-fatal, 5,816 deaths were reported while 12,351 were injured. Altogether 15,351 vehicles were involved. Data for subsequent year is probably still under compilation as it is not available on the website. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year, around 1.35 million people are killed in road accidents with middle and low income countries topping the list. In majority cases, pedestrians, motor-cyclists and cyclists are victims of fatality being more exposed and thus more vulnerable. These figures depict a sad state of affairs especially for those who lose their beloved family members in such tragic circumstances, but accidents are accidents that can occur even where commuters are well-versed with traffic rules and there is discipline on the roads.
Although much has been done by different governments to ensure adherence to regulations by all kinds of drivers, yet a lot more is required to establish rule of law on the roads of Pakistan. Since traffic is essentially a provincial subject, each province, including Islamabad Capital Territory, has its own Inspector General (IG) Traffic, who heads a force that is responsible to assure smooth flow of traffic.
Going through their official websites one comes across mission statements showing intense commitment to upholding the rule of law. So, for example, one finds: “enforce laws rigorously; hold those accountable that commit violations; and preserve the public order” in case of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; or for Punjab these are: “To ensure safety and provide help to road users in distress. It is our commitment to extend due respect to all road users, be fair and uphold ethical practices all the times; to ensure smooth flow of traffic with minimum resources and economical use of manpower/equipments; to gradually shift to the use of modern gadgetry (out-of-order safe-city cameras-sic!) to enforce traffic laws and regulate traffic.”
These proclamations sound very assuring online and one imagines that if what is declared is meant to be followed in letter and spirit, the roads of all the cities would have picture perfect traffic flow. Alas, this is definitely not the real position! The mayhem, disorder and chaos that exist on roads in all major cities and towns are sufficient proofs of the ‘seriousness’ of our regulatory forces, which thrive on the taxpayers’ contribution to the national exchequer but provide inadequate facilities.
The idea that whosoever is driving a vehicle or riding a motorcycle must be well-educated in traffic rules, should be eligible in age and should hold a valid licence, is absolutely alien to our scenario. The government has scarce means to educate such a vast population and the way they dole out licences, is by itself another story.
Amazingly, the well-to-do owning posh vehicles, very conveniently hand over their expensive cars to drivers usually from their villages who are mostly illiterate and who have hardly any understanding of the city traffic rules and care little for their fellow country people.
To make matters worse, the swarm of office and school/college going motor cyclists (many a times under age) notably during peak hours, create a muddle as they veer in and out of cars. In between, donkey carts driven mostly by women and children further add to the misery of commuters. Violation of traffic lights is so common that even when the light turns green, one has to be careful otherwise there could be a chance of colliding with a violator. Where signals are not operating for any reason, one’s faith in God increases manifold, when one emerges safely on the other side of the road. Town planners, especially of the major cities have never bothered about pedestrians and in their eagerness to provide signal-free corridors, they have converted city roads into highways making the walking population prone to accidents, especially the hit-and-run types.
Traffic at its worst is at the round-about. One wonders, why these are made in the first place for drivers who have no regard for the principle “give way to vehicles coming from the right”. Besides, by not maintaining their own lane, motorists usually cut straight across rather than keeping their lane, thus becoming a source of hazard for others. They are probably not aware about the basic rules that round-about means slow down, prepare to give way and if necessary stop to avoid collision. On the contrary, they increase speed, force their way in and hardly understand the necessity of stopping. Result? Every choked round-about speaks for itself.
In a country like ours where licences are granted without proper tests, there should either be traffic signals or a traffic controller at all junctions but no round-about. In the absence of urban mass transit system, the number of vehicles (sub-standard ones like the chingchi rickshaws), over-loaded motor-cycles and trucks carrying dangerously packed cargo on the roads is growing by the day to the extent that even the signal-free corridors become jam-packed. Although this is mostly on account of poor driving skills, wrong parking and occasionally because of accidents, yet the main culprits remain extremely poor traffic control, untested licence holders and those without licences.
Crucial arteries, like the M2 highway that were formerly examples of excellent traffic law and order now depict morbid state of affairs. Commuters using these roads have no idea that if over-speeding is a crime, so is under-speeding especially in the fast or speed dedicated lanes but nothing is done to prevent these potential accident threats. The way some motorists over-take can also jeopardize people’s lives and these are things that can easily be avoided provided trainers, both private and public, do their jobs competently.
Print, electronic and social media can conveniently be engaged to inform drivers about rules for driving, invoke their sense of responsibility and introduce the concept of obeying the law. Traffic controllers should show no mercy to violators particularly when they do not have the right to drive and when they deliberately move against the oncoming vehicles as they can be potential cases for section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code for jeopardizing people’s lives. They should also impound all vehicles that are either not road-worthy or their owners fail to observe standard operating procedures.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)