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Indian Government Seeks to Tame Chaotic Roads

The Indian government has proposed a stiff increase in penalties for traffic offenses. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, reckless driving and chaotic conditions on the country's roads are blamed for tens of thousands of accidents.

Morning rush hour in Delhi is not a scene for the faint hearted. Millions of cars, buses, motorcycles, and three-wheel scooters jostle for space on the city's roads. Drivers jump signals, change lanes recklessly, overtake from the wrong side, and fail to notice pedestrians trying to weave their way through the madness.

Delhi's traffic is considered to be more chaotic than in other cities, but bad driving is the norm on most roads in the country. The result: India tops the world in road fatalities with 100,000 people dying in road accidents every year. Tens of thousands of others suffer grievous injuries.

In a bid to curb reckless driving, the Indian government has introduced a bill in parliament proposing stiffer fines for traffic offenses. For example, speeding could attract a penalty of $10 to $25, and rash or drunken driving a fine of up to $50, along with a prison sentence.

Traffic experts feel the fines might have a sobering effect on drivers, who think little of paying the existing $2 penalty for offenses such as jumping signals.

Rohit Baluja, head of the Institute of Road Traffic Education, says the problem is huge.

"There are 146 million traffic violations committed by motorized road users every single day," said Baluja. "It is a culture of degeneration that people are doing whatever they want, you cannot anticipate a person, how will he behave."

The Delhi government has already increased penalties in the capital, but not to the extent proposed by the new bill.

But traffic experts say stiffer fines alone will not bring order on Indian roads. They also want authorities to improve road engineering to reduce the risk of accidents.

Baluja gives just a few examples. He says traffic signals are sometimes not clearly visible, and there are inadequate provisions for pedestrian crossings.

"We have problems with signals, with road markings, signages, design failures, that is a large contributory factor," added Baluja. "Signals you cannot see, behind bushes, they are not properly placed, if there are no stop lines, how would you know that you have crossed a stop line? "

Harman Sidhu, a resident of the northern city of Chandigarh, has been campaigning to improve road safety since he was paralyzed in an accident 10 years ago.

He says higher fines must be accompanied by better training and testing of drivers, and stricter procedures for issuing licenses.

"The government is actually focusing on enforcement, but the education part which is an important aspect is still not being covered," said Sidhu. "People have to pay more for offenses, but they don't really know under what condition are they making an offense. Most of the drivers get their licenses through some illegal channels or through some middlemen, there is no standardized testing."

All agree that India needs to step up efforts to improve road safety as it adds new cars at a dizzying pace, and builds new expressways that could turn into death traps if traffic behavior does not improve.