While the number of women driving has increased, so have the challenges they face
Until a year ago, Renuka Shankar (32), a software professional, remained hassled as she had to synchronise her daily schedule with that of her company bus. A few months ago, she bought a car and now drives from her house in Vadapalani to her workplace in Kelambakkam. “Smaller IT companies have buses only at fixed slots that might not suit all women employees. Having a vehicle of your own helps, but the dangers on the road are many,” she says.
As the city expands accommodating more companies and people, the number of women driving their own vehicles has increased and so have the challenges they face. The hostility is evident in many forms, including road rage and misbehaviour. “Some people usually have a problem when they see women driving fast. They jeer at you, pass lewd comments, try to race past and it gets worse when there is an ‘L' sign on your car,” says Ms. Shankar.
For women dressed in western formal wear, it is all the more difficult, confirms Elizabeth Rozario, an event and advertising manager, who drives to work.
Many driving schools say that the number of women learning to drive has increased by at least 40 per cent in last three years. The number of women opting for refresher courses in driving has also increased. R. Muralitharan of Jayabharathi Driving School, Nungambakkam, says that teaching women defensive driving techniques is necessary.
“They basically have to learn to drive well to be more confident. That will help them manoeuvre situations better.”
Ask S. Meena, a tutor who teaches women to drive in Adyar if she trains them to handle misbehaviour and she says: “You get live lessons during the training. Men often peek inside and act funny when they see two women. I tell my students to ignore them and concentrate on driving.”
While many women admit that such incidents of harassment leave them too scared to respond, some say they try noting down numbers to report to police later. “If you are experienced, you can stop your car to tackle the men, but most of us get jittery and just speed away,” says K. Srimathy, who runs a tour-designing company. “These apparently one-time offenders can actually be repeat offenders and might be encouraged just because there are not many women complaining,” she adds.
Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic) M. Ravi says that while the police are committed to addressing the safety concerns of women, it depends on women to report such incidents. “Women can either send a message to 9566100000, or even call the helpline 1091 and we will ensure action.”
These facilities are highly underutilised because women often remain silent spectators, he adds.
The perils of driving a two-wheeler are more, say women. “When I go to the office in a sari on a two-wheeler, men often follow me and say stupid things. The fear is since they come close all of a sudden, there is a danger of losing balance, says Archana Kumar, who works at textile retail showroom in Pondy Bazaar.
Such unpleasant incidents can happen anywhere, at traffic signals or on less-used roads which are taken to avoid the traffic. Some men come close and stop with a screeching sound at the signals. On smaller roads, they would not allow women to overtake, says Manasvini Mohan, an architecture student at Hindustan University. Safety at underground parking lots, especially in many MRTS stations at nights, also is a concern, say women.
Sometimes, being a woman helps at times when you get stranded or even ask for help with people being generally cooperative, says Catherine Fernando (33).
“It used to be difficult when I rode a two-wheeler because you could also expect something unpleasant to happen. Now it is simpler as I drive a car with tinted glass,” she adds.
As many bigger companies offer car loans at reduced rates, and some even gift cars to couples, the number of women driving cars to offices has considerably increased. “Office transport is rather expensive amounting to almost Rs.200 a day for me, and so is affording a driver from a trustworthy agency that costs at least Rs.6,000 a month. Having a car and driving it yourself means you are in control. It helps you plan your day better and offer car pooling. But I do insist that people I ferry are only women for safety reasons,” says Roshni Chidambaram, a senior manager in an IT firm.