The CMRL crane accident reveals the safety gap at night on Chennai roads.

The Metro rail crane accident between Nandanam and Teynampet traffic signals sends out the loud and clear warning that Chennai’s high-speed traffic needs to be slowed down (read the news report here). It is not clear what precise factor was responsible for the terrible crash that led to the death of motorcycle rider S. Karthikeyan. Yet, the incident is another reminder that Chennai’s roads can be a scary for vulnerable motorists at night.

As anyone who drives back late at night after dropping off someone at Chennai Central or the airport, or between midnight and 5 a.m. to pick up someone from the rail station will vouch for, there is deadly disorder that marks the city’s arterial roads. The traffic signals are mostly on (where they work), although no one really cares for them. Whether it is Palmgrove, Spencer’s, Tarapore Towers, Anna Statue or Periyar Statue junctions, the signals on Anna Salai are simply ignored. Only at Central are vehicles forced to stop, due to the persistent traffic.

This deadly indifference is compounded by the attitude of the commercial vehicle drivers (taxis, buses, mini-lorries) who drive at breakneck speed on open roads such as Anna Salai - even in front of the Anna Salai Police Station. Pedestrian subways remain shut at night, making it impossible for people on foot to cross safely.

Moreover, when the Chennai Metro Rail Limited moves its heavy machinery in the small hours of the day, there is no supervision by external agencies, notably the traffic police. Why is that the case? If the risk is high in moving cranes, giant machines and so on, why are they not escorted by police vehicles with flashing lights? When sirens of patrol vehicles wail pointlessly in residential areas waking up people who are asleep at 2 a.m., why are they not deployed here?

It should not take Public Interest Litigation for the police to take such basic measures in the interests of public safety. In August last year, the police informed the Madras High Court, that only ten per cent of the city’s signals were under repair. Remarkably, it took a court petition for the traffic personnel to investigate a basic infrastructure system for the city with millions of vehicles. Have the ten per cent faulty signals been fixed, and what is the current state of the traffic signalling system?

More basically, the traffic police should make up its mind whether the signals should really be kept on at night, as part of 24 X 7 regulation. If they are to be on, should they not be uniformly followed? Of course they should, but then, what steps are being taken to ensure that? Why make rule-abiding motorists feel silly when they stop at such signals, and subject them to honking and abuse by impatient drivers (whether it is day or night)? Add to this the wrong-side driving culture that the Chennai City Traffic Police treat as perfectly normal (it happens routinely at Kodambakkam bridge entry from Mahalingapuram side, and from Liberty side, for example).

If the overall goal of enforcement is one of ‘zero tolerance’, it should be made plain and adopted seriously. If it is not, then motorists should be advised caution while negotiating dangerous areas, clearly demarcating them and putting out notices prominently. In short, there has to be a lot more enforcement, and communication on this enforcement. Half measures will not do.