In one of the scariest and saddest accidents of its kind, a man and his fully pregnant wife in Kerala lost their lives when their car burst into flames two weeks back, while on the way to the hospital for her delivery. People have been, without doubt, genuinely upset and disturbed by this news, even more so since their 7-year-old daughter witnessed the horror unfold in front of her. As you can imagine, when the news is as tragic as this, news pages and social media make it a point to post something related to this tragedy every couple of hours or so, obviously because they look at it as “hot news” which would get them more hits and likes. To the extent that I am tired of “hiding” posts which are nothing but crude, insensitive, tearjerker clickbaits.
There have been thousands of comments in which people expressed their condolences, questioned the safety of the car and the brand in general, debated the existence of God, wondered if they could have done anything to escape from the car, gave out tips on how to save yourselves if you are ever in such a situation etc. – which is all understandable and harmless. But even worse than the clickbait headlines have been the comments from “road safety experts” who immediately decided that the root cause of this tragedy and the immediate reason for these unfortunate deaths has been nothing but the “menace” called seatbelts. There were some who expressed outright anger in how people are now dying because of seatbelts. There were many who wondered why on the roads of Kerala where people can hardly go beyond a speed of 40-60km/hr, seatbelts should be made mandatory. And then of course, there were the ones who quickly jumped to how the government and police force are only interested in squeezing out money from the poor, helpless common man for “harmless” traffic rule violations like not wearing seatbelts and helmets.
That our people have a strong aversion to anything related to road safety and traffic rules is not news. I mean, if we had the slightest bit of civic and traffic sense, our roads wouldn’t be the madhouse that they are (and I would be fulfilling my dream of driving around without having a panic attack every two minutes). When I say “our people”, please do understand that I am talking about a vast majority of course, but not every single one out there. So please take offense after some introspection of whether it applies to you or not. Not only are these people unconcerned about the danger they pose to others on the road, they are least bothered about their own safety and their family’s as well. How else do you explain a parent driving around with a 3-month-old infant (no exaggeration here!!) in his/her lap, without thinking for a moment about the fatal and shattering crush the steering wheel could give the infant’s chest in case of an accident or even braking suddenly? How else do you explain an 8 or 10-year-old being given complete control of a two-wheeler and sent out to our already crazy streets?
The most basic and simplest safety requirement is what we are talking about here. When something as simple as seatbelts and helmets can lower the fatality to such a huge extent, I don’t understand why people are hellbent on opposing it and wanting themselves dead! They try to prove their point by citing examples of accidents where people got stuck inside a car because the seatbelt was jammed and the car door was locked from inside. Granted that in a traumatic situation like an accident, people don’t always succeed in using a seatbelt cutter even if they have it right beside them, or be able to apply the lessons on squeezing out of a jammed seatbelt. But are we going to call a lifesaving mechanism a safety hazard based on that?
Yes, even with all the preventive measures we can’t predict what could happen to us. But does that mean we throw caution to the wind and drastically increase the chances of ourselves and our loved ones getting killed? The problem is that people like to think of themselves as invincible, that everything bad that happens to others could never happen to them. I don’t know if it is toxic overconfidence or simply foolish ignorance. And then there is a strong resistance to new rules (and old ones for that matter), wherein the law enforcement bodies are made to look like the bad guys for asking people to wear an accessory that would prevent them from getting killed.
I remember back in 2010 or so when it was still relatively a fresh phase in making seatbelts and helmets mandatory, the kind of anger some of my motorbike-riding friends displayed every time they came across the police on the streets while riding without helmets. One of my friends was using all sorts of cuss words while talking about it to me, that after a while I had to stop him and ask “If you fall from the bike and hit your head, is he going to die? Why the hell are you making it sound as if you are forced to wear a helmet to keep him safe?” The same was (is) the case with those trying to “trick” the police by keeping the seatbelt loosely around the arm, pretending to be wearing it and only locking it in right before getting stopped for checking. There would be a smug grin of victory if they get off without any consequence, almost as if they have a death wish and they don’t want a stupid seatbelt to come in the way of that.
The most common and by far, the lamest argument people come up with is “The government does not do anything to keep the roads safe or maintain them properly. And they have the audacity to ask us to pay fine for not wearing seatbelts and helmets, only to loot us.” I have seen even some much-followed superstars endorsing such stupidity by posting these things for their followers to see and say “Wow! He is so fearless and sensible!” In the movie Action Hero Biju, there is a scene where a frustrated biker asks this question to the police when stopped for not wearing a helmet. And the policeman replies “It’s because the roads are not safe that we ask you to wear a helmet.” It’s a funny retort in the movie, which not only takes a dig at the government for failing to maintain our roads properly, but also calls out the ridiculousness of this argument from people.
And while we are at it, I must say that it is not just seatbelts and helmets that people have a problem with. Even jumping the red light and speeding are things they would justify if stopped by the police. Someone I know once told us a “story of victory” of his father who is a politician, whose car was stopped for speeding and not slowing down at a red signal. The cop on traffic duty stood up to him. And the next morning, our friend woke up to his father blasting the cop at his home – because political power and the “urgency of attending a political meeting” would any day trump basic traffic rules, safety and the authority of a policeman who was only doing his duty. The pride with which he spoke of this incident, beaming about his father’s “win” over the “measly and arrogant cop” convinced me that our people wouldn’t change anytime in the near future when the people ruling them are no different.
Protest the condition of the roads, demand safer roads – but what on earth does that have to do with you violating traffic rules or not adhering to safety protocols? How is putting yourself in danger in any way a sensible reaction to the government’s ineffectiveness? Have a little bit of sense, at least to keep yourselves alive till it really is your time to go.
Also published on Medium.
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