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Ok…what is fast? Think about it… is driving at 20 kmph fast? Most people would say no… but if you ask the poor old man who, if knocked over by a car at that speed, would certainly suffer grave injury – he would say that 20 is indeed fast. So as it turns out – fast lies in the the wounds of the hit. Or at least those who are preventing more hits. Take BMC for example. (For non-Mumbaikars, BMC is the city’s local governing organization.) The BMC, along with the expert help of the Mumbai Traffic Police has the unenviable job of defining city speed limits. It would be only logical that the BMC would have applied statistical analysis and traffic science to define city speed limits, for example:

• at 32.19 Kmph there is about a 1 in 40 (2.5 %) chance of being killed or 97% chance of survival
• at 48.28 kmph there is about a 1 in 5 (20%) chance of being killed or 80% chance of survival
• at 56.33 kmph there is a 50/50 chance of being killed
• at 64.37 kmph there is about a 9 in 10 (90%) chance of being killed or 10% chance of survival

(official figures by the Dept. of Transport in the U.K. based on 4 decades of accident history)

With this kind of data at their fingertips, one would think that the BMC would have it easy – all they would have to do is predict to some degree of accuracy the typical pedestrian traffic on a particular road, take into consideration schools/parks/bhelpuri stands etc and apply the wisdom of the Brits. Think again, because there is no science in the world which can create a mathematical equation which could model the sheer randomness of pedestrian traffic on Mumbai roads. So what if John Nash could create a mathematical equation based on the feeding patterns of birds. Mr. Nash (and his imaginary friend) would eat dirt in Mumbai – especially when hit by a speeding Auto-Rickshaw that miraculously appears from behind a cow chewing cud next to a stationary hand-cart.

So, as you can see, BMC has no choice but to err (and that they will) on the side of caution. The two-fold solution that worked for almost two decades (starting from the point when internal-combustion powered vehicles started outnumbering bicycles and bovine mammals on the roads) was deceptively simple and elegant – highlighting all that is beautiful about India.

First – hide the concept of speed limits from the public and let people manage their own speed. Like there is divine law in the wild nature of the African Savannah – traffic management will miraculously happen in our urban jungle. Sure a few will  be run over – but really who will miss them in a billion! Punish the perpetrators and they will never do it again. Simple.

Second – and this one is truly brilliant – don’t give the poor sods behind the wheel a chance to speed up! Don’t repair potholes until there are new ones to replace them, design roads which converge from 4 lanes to one, construct regular and random vertebrae-crunching speed breakers that can only be successfully maneuvered by tractors, install traffic lights which do not work during rush hour … the list goes on. No speed… no problem.

The national government also played their part by successfully barring foreign car companies from speeding up our roads with their obscene V6s – and if they were allowed in, such heavy taxes were levied on any engine capable of generating grin-inducing acceleration that they remained the folly of the rich. All this worked like a charm and our road-accident fatality numbers (assuming one could calculate such a statistic in India) were among the best. But even India is not immune to change – and boy did things change fast!  (pun)

Somewhere early in this millennium, the driving enthusiast was born in India. Cars like the Hyundai Accent and the Suzuki Swift (though slow by international standards) started introducing the alien concept of “0-60Kmph in less than 10 seconds” to even middle-class drivers like me. Sure enough, better roads were put in place, like the Western and the Eastern Express Highways in Mumbai with almost no traffic lights, smooth roads and delicious curvy flyovers. Seeing an alarming rise in speeding deaths, the BMC realized that the first part of their plan had stopped working. Suddenly Mumbai with its fancy roads and fancier  cars needed the dreaded speed limit.

I am sure various meetings were held and international experts were consulted. Whatever happened, at some point two years ago unidentified signs started appearing on the side of our major roads. They simply said “50”. Hmm. Confounding – this random number! Is it supposed to mean something profound – like Douglas Adam’s 42 or Aryabhatta’s 0? There were no other numbers anywhere else. All boards only said “50” – there were no 35’s or 80’s… just the ubiquitous half century.

Having lived and driven abroad I soon realized this meant some kind of a speed limit sign. But many didn’t – and even more ignored it. Because in India we are not taught what a speed limit is when we learn driving. “Keep your eyes on the road and look out for stray dogs” I was told. There was no mention of a sign with a number on it. So there were accidents every day. Bad bloody ones with heads smashed and families destroyed.

Then came the first truly world-class piece of tarmac in Mumbai – the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. A gorgeous piece of engineering, four lanes were open only to cars (as the sign at the tool booth says – “No Three-wheelers, No Two-Wheelers, No Bullock Carts”) with four wheels. I travel on it everyday to and fro from work – and I have to admit that it brings back memories of the Autobahn. It was obvious that the BMC needed to put a speed limit on this speed-magnet. Guess what they came up with after a great deal of deliberation? You guessed it – “50”.

I might get booked for this, but I have not yet seen a vehicle (and that includes the police vehicles) that drives at 50 Kmph. The average speed is 80 – and I have seen many doing well over a hundred – and if anyone in the BMC was keeping their eyes open, they would change the speed limit to a more reasonable number. So that it means something. A couple of days ago, the sea-link saw its first fatality. A state-of-the-art Skoda Fabia lost control and hit an oncoming taxi. A 14 year old being driven to school, died. And I could see that today, there was already a marked decrease in the number of 100kmph+ drivers on the road.

What BMC needs to understand that drivers in Mumbai (and their cars) have evolved. Most cars today in India will still be in the mid-range of their 3rd gear at 50kmph. The worldwide standard speed limit for non-pedestrian roads is a minimum of around 90kmph. Only when the public perceive that the authorities have put some thought behind assigning speed limits – will they start to respect it. Otherwise really “50” could as well be the meaning of life, the universe and everything*.

(*- from “The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy”)