The development agenda at the State level might have been engulfed by political incoherence and contestation, but Kathmandu’s authorities have been busy, with varying degrees of success.
The authorities have launched two initiatives to regulate traffic in the valley. The fight against drunk driving has caught speed over the past months. Concurrently, four-wheel drivers are now forced to wear seat belts. This piece will focus on these initiatives to suggest complementary policies to improve traffic regulation and make our roads safer.
This delayed effort to prevent drunk driving is welcome news, given the numerous road accidents that have claimed countless lives and left many others injured. The unscientific, “smell your breath” (SYB) method of determining driver intoxication, however, has led to serious debates. Traffic police have consequently acquired some breathalyzers, although not enough to get rid of SYB altogether.
The zero tolerance policy has also come under scrutiny, as if riders even blow a 0.01 BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) on the breathalyzer, they can be charged. Alcohol can affect motor coordination, but social drinking within limits is possible, where motor coordination is not affected. The lack of consideration for acceptable alcohol consumption has meant that those that drink within tolerable levels have to find ways to escape rather than engage with the system.
Currently, if caught driving under the influence, the offender has to pay Rs 1,000 as fine and attend an awareness class. An effective solution to both the problems of unscientific regulation and dogmatic implementation would be to first investigate tolerable levels and then increase the fine for those that drink beyond those levels and drive.
A more targeted approach would penalize only those drivers who present safety hazards to themselves and others. People will be free to enjoy a drink without facing the wrath of the system but those intoxicated beyond the point of safe driving should be deterred more powerfully. For those that can afford to drink and own their own vehicles, a fine of Rs 1,000 is more of a hassle than a financial impediment.
If violators were to be fined Rs 5,000 if their intoxication levels are beyond the specified limit, even the relatively affluent would have to think twice before grabbing their keys. The higher fines could then be used to buy more breathalyzers so that policemen are not forced to smell drivers’ breaths to determine intoxication. Further, a systematic study of intoxication and driving regulations from around the world would help establish meaningful rules, and heavier fines for transgressors would bolster the effectiveness of those rules.
The recent policy implementation on seat belts proves that fines work in Nepal. Numerous attempts have been made in the past to force three-wheel and four-wheel drivers to wear their seat belts, but to no avail. A few months ago, though, traffic cops briefly advertised and then began implementing a strong seat belt policy where drivers not adhering to the policy were fined Rs 600. There was a transformation within days, as drivers buckled up to avoid these fines. Most drivers instinctively put on their seat belts now for fear of punishment.
The proper implementation of severe fines is welcome, and lays the platform for further simple but effective transformations in traffic regulation.
On average, then, someone dies in a road mishap in Kathmandu every three days, and five people die in the country each day. Motorcycle accidents dominate these statistics, with over seven two-wheelers involved in mishaps each day. These are conservative estimates, because “only those accidents with high injury or property damage or with disputes are reported and recorded” (Sharma, 2011).
Current traffic regulations have failed to effectively regulate motorcycles, the overwhelming choice of transport that accounts for 73 percent of all motorized vehicles here (ibid.: 13). The government made it mandatory for pillion riders to wear helmets in 2008, and the policy was successful as most motorcyclists began carrying two helmets. However, poor regulation over time meant that the rule was effectively scrapped two years later. One common excuse for non-enforcement has been the claim that law and order were threatened by criminals who were abusing the helmet rule to carry out anonymous crime on bikes around the capital. There is no rule that prevents pillion riders from wearing helmets now anyways, so this indirect approach of tackling crime is misguided. The government should immediately reinstate the helmet policy and back it up with heavy fines to ensure the safety of riders and pedestrians.
Pedestrians are the most vulnerable road users, who are involved in more accidents and contribute to more deaths than two-wheelers. However, they are often ignored by statistics and resulting policies.
Although pedestrians face particular challenges because of the lack of adequate pavements, they are not blameless either. Numerous zebra crossings and overhead bridges around Kathmandu are frequently ignored as people cross without regard for regulation. Initiatives such as small fines and shaming programs (by awarding offenders “prizes”) have been irregular and ill-enforced. If pedestrians were fined Rs 1,000 each time they offend, the policy would deter thoughtless and dangerous crossings. A concurrent fine-enforced policy of forcing motorized vehicles to stop to privilege pedestrians at zebra crossings will further incentivize better adherence from pedestrians.
Numerous other traffic problems could be addressed through heavy fines. Public vehicle operators that stop outside designated areas or compromise safety through overcrowding should be fined around Rs 1,000. Those that do not follow traffic lights, ride on pavements, encroach on others’ lanes, or produce fake student cards for discount should be similarly punished. Road expansion projects alone cannot change either our riding culture or the resultant traffic problems unless rules and regulations complement conducive vehicular behavior.
These measures are draconian by design, even though behavioral changes in an ideal world would be guided more by ideological, ethical, and moral considerations. However, our roads remain extremely unsafe, and some offending individuals’ non-compliance has serious, often fatal, repercussions for others. The Nepali experience has shown that heavy fines provide strong deterrents to deviants, so these tested methods must be expanded to include a variety of transgressions.
Nepali experience shows that heavy fines provide strong deterrents to deviants, including traffic offenders.
There will necessarily be those that disregard these rules. Even now, smart techniques exist to beat the breathalyzer or ignore seat belts. However, those that think they are cheating the system are really cheating themselves, because their life and property are equally at risk. Efforts are necessary to ultimately change our misplaced sense of invincibility—most of us do not expect to fall victim, even as so many accidents occur around us—but for now, corrective measures must be put in place. Besides, strict fines could also lead to effective conditioning that could then lead to cultural changes, or so we can hope.
These measures could backfire, especially if traffic cops go beyond their mandate and/or the revenue generated is misused. The rules, including those I propose, should not be imposed but widely discussed, so that only sensible ones become policy. Once standards are agreed, however, they should be thoroughly advertised and then pursued with zeal and enforced with heavy fines. The money raised could then be transparently used to fund public work. A strong, neutral Ombudsperson division should also be established to hear grievances from those that feel wrongly prosecuted, so that draconian measures do not translate into dictatorial edicts.