‘CARRUMP!!!!’ … the distinct sound came through the bike intercom. It was like a large cardboard box being suddenly collapsed and I recognised immediately the cadence of a violent road collision. Like every accident I have ever been exposed to, time slowed to a crawl as a series of images and inputs sank into my very being and I hoped that whatever had just happened did not involve Mags who was riding a short way behind as we negotiated hectic Pondicherry traffic. Instinctively shooting a glance in my rear view mirror, I was just in time to see a small blue and white ‘scooty’ explode in a head on smash. The little scooter had collided with the front corner of an oncoming car, spun through ninety degrees and was now flying up the road on its side in a cloud of dust and debris, casting off chunks of plastic fairing and side panel. A young man was caught up in the midst of the ejecta, desperately flailing to avoid all contact with the black stuff closely followed by Mags, the yellow beak and headlight of her GS looming through the carnage…
I leapt off my bike and ran back towards the carnage. Praise be to every road god there ever was for ABS! The young guy on the scooter had been riding like a maniac, full-throttle through traffic and just passed Mags on the outside when he hit the car that was also overtaking, was over the central divide and on our side of the road. Mags braked instantly, her ABS kicking in and bringing the BMW to a controlled stop, her front wheel just nudging the wreckage of the scooter at the end of its slide down the road. By the time I covered the short distance back to the scene, the wrecked scooter had been dragged over to the side of the road, Mags had hurriedly ran back to see to the youngster and the traffic was moving normally again as if nothing had happened.
The car driver had vanished. The young lad was shaking badly with shock, having shredded large patches of skin off his arms and legs, his wounds a shocking, garish, gaping salmon pink against the brown of his skin. He had been riding in a T-Shirt with shorts and flip-flops and no helmet. From the violence of the accident and his lack of protective apparel he was extremely lucky to get off with the injuries sustained. A flash mob of people quickly gathered and calls for help were made on mobile phones. After a few minutes they waived us off as everything was under control.
All of this happened on one of the shortest rides on our entire trip. We had arrived the previous day in Pondicherry to find our pre-booked hotel had been closed for over two years (yet both Trip Advisor and ClearTrip.com showed the hotel as a going concern and took our booking!) We found an alternative for one night only as it was festival time in Pondicherry, or Pondy as it is affectionately known, and almost everything was booked up for the next four days. Luckily we managed to find another hotel only ten minutes away and we were just popping over to our new home when the accident happened.
It’s a hard thing to get your head round how these lovely, gentle people we meet on the streets every day can suddenly transform into psychopaths once they gain control of a vehicle. Everyone’s journey then becomes the most urgent thing in the world so it’s on with the horn, get out of my way, I’m coming through regardless. Road traffic rules are totally disregarded and, even worse, there seems to be no law enforcement so it’s all reckless flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff, which is fine until it all goes wrong and it does on an all too regular basis. Every four minutes someone dies on the roads in India. The vast majority are two wheelers who make up the bulk of road users. We are now in Tamil Nadu, the place that regularly tops the most horrendous road-traffic accident statistics in all of India. Last year alone over 16,000 people were killed on the roads here, the equivalent of the entire population of Ripon in Yorkshire. That is just in one state. The national stats are running towards half a million road deaths per annum and the trend is worryingly rising.
The World Health Organisation recognises a 5-point plan to prevent road accidents; Wearing of seat belts, mandatory crash helmets, use of child restraints, banning use of mobile devices and enforcement of substance abuse while driving. All of these things are more or less absent in India along with any form of control or enforcement. Even worse, few politicians want to take up the road safety mantle as it could cost them votes. Do you really want to be the guy to stop people riding 3+ on a motorcycle and make everyone wear helmets, when this is the way many families get around? Do you really want to be the guy who prevents holy animals, aka cows, from dandering down the fast lane on the highway when it is their divine right to be there?
From Kanyakumari, at the bottom of the subcontinent, the only way was up and we had by now adjusted our daily riding routine to leave early in the morning, thereby getting out of town before morning rush-hour and arriving at our destination in good time before the evening mayhem begins. A beautiful days ride took us to see the fabulous Meenakshi Temple complex at Madurai, where we spent the next day padding barefoot around its impressive inner recesses. The temple was incredible, a vast courtyard complex surrounded by twelve towering Gopurams, with interconnecting walls such that the complex resembled a huge holy fortress at the heart of the city. Each of the tapering Gopurams was festooned with elaborately carved miniatures of gods, folk and animals, this time coloured in most vivid sherbet-pastels. There are over 1500 of them at the site. I’ll let the photographs do the rest here…
From Madurai we rode on to Pondy where, once our nerves had settled in the aftermath of the accident, we enjoyed a pleasant weekend in the ex-French colony. The Pongal festivity is a Tamil Nadu celebration of harvest time and ‘Pongal’, a creamy dish made from pulses and rice is traditionally eaten. Grey streets with Gallic names had been enlivened by elaborate patterns made with coloured gulal powder and the atmosphere was very much one of carnival. A cool sea breeze made for refreshing walks along the promenade where a big stage had been set up and entertainers performed an evening of folk dances and traditional music. This was compensation for earlier on when we suffered a mild aural assault, courtesy of the Pondicherry Tourist Police Band whose rootle-tootle rendition of ‘Colonel Bogey’ put a smile on our faces.
In the last blog I mentioned a chicken-run between a bus and a truck to get to reach a bridge near Calicut. We have now witnessed this accident take place in Vellore as we left early in the morning. Two buses rushing neck-in-neck for the main bridge north out of the city, this time neither would concede and both buses collided coming to a halt at the side of the road, still stuck together fortunately without further mayhem. The drivers were out raging at one another over who was to blame and I can only imagine the sheer terror of the poor passengers many of whom had wandered off presumably in search of Valium, clean underwear or probably both.
The ride north was a profitless haul on boring featureless roads across the flat Deccan Plateau. The tedium was interspersed by periodic life-threatening interruptions from some of the lunatics we were sharing the highway with. Take Heavy Goods Vehicle as an example. Many of the trucks are hand made. By this I mean they take a truck chassis and marry it to an oversize freight-shipping container, sometimes extending the roof skyward for the expediency of getting more cargo onboard. Unfortunately none of these modifications seem to be done with any thought to engineering or physics and the hopelessly overladen wagons that result are doomed to crawl the roads at 40kph.
Over half of HGVs in India persistently drive in the outside lane. With the remainder on the inside this means a ride up what should be a fast modern highway becomes a dangerous, stop-start slalom through these sluggish leviathans of the road. The overloading also leads to frequent breakdowns of the most catastrophic nature; collapsed leafsprings, blown-out tyres and outright busted chassis. If the truck hasn’t actually been toppled over by the unbalancing of its insane load (and this is a common sight) then it comes to a grinding halt on the carriageway and the driver will hop out and put rocks up the road so he doesn’t get rear-ended! All in all just another in the litany of horrors to be faced riding India’s roads.
Just as we were growing despondent over the likelihood of us surviving any of this, Hyderabad and a meeting with an amazing Indian woman; Dr. Geethanjali Ramachandra. We were introduced to Geetha by our UK visa sponsor Dr. Rad Kadengal and on hearing we were in the vicinity we received an invite to stay. Geetha is a former ICU doctor and knows firsthand the consequences of the poor driving standards in India from trying to piece together shattered bodies to having to tell a distraught family that a loved one didn’t make it. “One person is dying on the roads every four minutes,” she said when we discussed the topic. “That’s 360 people losing their lives or the equivalent of a major air disaster every day. Can you imagine the outcry if the headlines read ‘360 killed in a plane crash’? Aircraft would be grounded; there would be travel chaos until the appropriate authorities concluded a full investigation and corrective actions were fully implemented. But for road traffic accidents, where this headline is happening every day, no one is prepared to make any real effort to stop it.”
Well that is not strictly true because Geetha herself with a group of like-minded people in the Hyderabad Road Safety Club (www.meetup.com\roadsafetyclub) are taking action to try and raise awareness of the scale of the problem and also to provide training and education within their community, especially targeting youngsters. We joined Geetha at a couple of events on a Saturday morning to see the club in action…
The first was a gathering of club members at a busy road intersection in Cyberabad, as the high-tech part of the city is known. Here we engaged in a placard and leaflet campaign trying to persuade drivers to belt up and riders to wear a helmet. To be honest it felt like a task ordained by Canute as it emphasised just how many people hold road safety in utter disregard. From drivers not belted up or using mobile phones in the heavy traffic to bikes with three or four people on board, young tots precariously balanced on fuel tanks or sandwiched between Mum and Dad and all without a helmet in sight. Then pedestrians determined to cross the 8-lane highway when it was in full flow by stepping out into that flow and making cars give way…
Yet this feeling of hopelessness amidst insanity was totally blown away by the second event that Saturday morning when we joined a bunch of school-kids from the DAV Public School, Banjara Hills, at another busy traffic light / road intersection across town. In many ways it was a similar placard and flyer exercise but this time the phalanx of kids lining the road gave youthful, energetic voice to the messages for the day, many of which they had been encouraged to write themselves. “WEAR YOUR SEAT-BELT! WEAR YOUR HEL-MET! DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE!” was one of the chants now stuck in my head forever. The effect was amazing. One car driver quickly belted up in embarrassment when a little tot knocked on the side window and made the cross-chest ‘wear your seat-belt sign’. Helmetless riders had nowhere to hide as their stupidity was pointed out to them by a ten year-old. After about an hour we joined the kids and a Harley Rider group in a procession towards their school, these little kids relentlessly haranguing road safety violators all the way.
At the school I was asked to talk to the kids, now all seated in the school playground. Speaking to a group of such motivated young children, their smiling upturned faces all locked on me on that little stage, was a powerful and emotional experience and something I will never forget. I thanked them for taking time on a Saturday to come out and do this and also reminded them to carry the message home to parents and family. I had a most heart-rending round of applause, which really belonged to them. The Road-Safety Club is rolling out educational packages to this and other schools across the city and it was a truly brilliant endeavour that will hopefully one day turn these most dreadful statistics around. Kids, you should be extremely proud of yourselves!
And so we left Hyderabad to continue north, our travels enriched and reinvigorated by our few days with such a great bunch of people. Ahead lay the treasures of the cave temples at Ellora and Ajanta and beyond; the road the Rajasthan surely the jewel of India.
The photogallery for this blog may be accessed by clicking the following link: 360 Dead!