In case you missed the muted response normally drawn at such occasions, the United Nations World Habitat Day was observed earlier this week. Celebrated on the first Monday of October, the purpose of the day is essentially to reflect on the state of our cities and towns and to perhaps find a reason to lament or glorify them. And reflect one did. The question that ultimately arises for anyone concerned about our imperilled human settlements is the same question being put to readers this week. What do you consider to be the most dangerous thing you will do all day?
Notwithstanding the fact that we already live in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, which could it be? Lighting up a cancer stick? Searching for free porn? Leaving supercookies across the web for a geek named Zuckerberg? Way cold. Or do you believe, as research from the American College of Cardiology now shows, that sitting down for long periods of time would be the most dangerous thing to do because it can give you heart disease, obesity, cancer and even an early death? Still cold. Well maybe not entirely on that Zuckerberg bit but let’s leave Big Brother for another time. Let us also dispense with the coincidence of you being near a suicide bomber or the Aedes Egyptii mosquito for our inquiry focuses on those times when we go looking for trouble, and not the other times when trouble unfortunately finds us.
When you think of all the situations where people deliberately put their life in harm’s way, driving becomes the single most dangerous act that you could allow yourself or a loved one to perform today. Whether you ride a motorcycle or a car to your place of learning, entertainment or livelihood, many innocent lives have paid the price for encounters between vehicles and humans. And as a hardened road user from the urban madhouse that is Lahore, one feels lucky to be alive and well enough to tell you that. For it’s only upon driving into the city from the suburbs that you really begin to appreciate the variety of hazards one has to contend with on a daily basis.
A recent study on the transport dynamics of the provincial headquarters of the Punjab reveals that no less than twelve million trips are made by citizens every day. That’s twelve million candidates for a potential meeting with the grim reaper, or at best the workshop or an emergency ward. When you consider that the economic cost of road crashes and injuries is estimated to be over a hundred billion rupees annually, you begin to realise that our losses are a lot more than just statistics. Road traffic injuries and fatalities push many families deeply into poverty by the loss of their breadwinners, and exact a heavy toll on the victims and their families. And if the recent deaths of students at Kallar Kahar haven’t shaken up your views on what’s possible, then nothing will.
But if you leave aside the tragedy of loss of human life, you begin to realise that driving has serious psychological consequences for those braving the roads. If, as your favourite columnist, you have been avoiding potholes and encroachments, and have successfully been dodging the two and three wheelers weaving in and out of traffic, you may feel fortunate. But road rage and rude drivers running rampant will probably ruin your day before you even get to your destination. Which is why one finds it odd that a perceptions analysis of Lahore’s road users notes that people’s driving manner is not recognised to be as serious as dilapidated road conditions, poor law enforcement, increased congestion, and lack of facilities for traffic safety? And while one supports the extending of appendages and digits at crazy drivers hogging the road, it’s clear that a task as mundane as driving was probably not intended to be so life threatening. So where did we go wrong?
Despite several experiments aimed at making our roads more user friendly, and several institutional initiatives in Islamabad, road safety remains low on the list of priorities across the country. And if you have been witnessing the transportation disasters in Lahore, you too would agree that the government prefers to direct its energies towards brick and mortar development rather than brandishing a regulatory stick at bad drivers.
Which is why one feels compelled to use the forum provided by this fine publication to inform our decision makers that they can contemplate all the road widening and underpass schemes that they want, but my vote shall henceforth go to the person who can stop pandering to the construction mafia and sort out the multifarious problems associated with driving in my city. Perhaps you too should follow suit.
The writer is a consultant on public policy.