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The paths to safe driving

The lessons that this dutiful and tough driving inspector taught, were for life

It was in Luanshya, a small and beautiful copper- mining town in Zambia, that I took my first driving lesson of any sort.

To know how to ride a bicycle would be the bare minimum, one might think. But not for me. During my school days I enjoyed the luxury of pillion-riding courtesy of my neighbour and my classmate. I had a friend who enjoyed a similar privilege and we ignored the snide remarks passed at us for not learning the simple task of riding a bicycle. We encouraged each other saying we would learn to drive a car by ourselves one day. I never imagined it would come true in a foreign land.

I was driven around for a few days, after which the driver was withdrawn and I was told to drive by myself. Imagine my shock! Upon my confessing that I did not know driving, a Zambian colleague came forward to teach me.

He was extremely nice and warm, as most Zambians are, and assured me that in a week’s time he would make me a good driver. He tossed the keys to me and asked me to take the driver’s seat, and he seated himself in the front seat. I asked him if there is an additional brake on his side, which I had seen in learners’ cars in India. But he goaded me to start the car and start moving. After fumbling with the key, brake, clutch and the accelerator for some time, I finally got going.

Luanshya had very few roads and the Bombay airport’s bus tarmac would be busier than the Luanshya roads. I drove on the empty roads like the film heroines in the old black and white movies. I am a good singer too! In a week’s time I was ready for the test, or so thought my coach.

On the appointed day, with the traffic inspector occupying the front seat, I started my drive and went around the roads as per his instructions without any hiccup. As I was negotiating a steep stretch, the inspector asked me to stop the vehicle balancing on the clutch and the accelerator and without using the hand-brake. I tried as hard as I could, but the car rolled back swiftly. As a kid, I had enjoyed sliding down on the slider backwards.

He failed me and asked me to come again after more practice. The second time everything was fine until it came to reverse parking, arguably the toughest part of the driving test. Two drums were kept at a distance from each other, only a few inches wider than the width of the car. First I tried from the right-hand side and hit one of the drums, and then from the left-hand side I hit the other one. The inspector looked horrified. Immediately I knew something was wrong and asked him timidly if I was supposed to hit both the drums all at once.

Staring at me, he got into the car and asked me to drive. He pointed to a parking lot at a distance and asked me to do parallel parking. I was hearing that term for the first time, but did not have the courage to ask him. I drove further up and parked adjacent to the car that was already parked and looked at him triumphantly. He was baffled and said, ‘You are blocking the road. Park properly’. Seeing no action, he got out and walked away.

The art of parking

I then spent another week learning the art of all kinds of parking. In my next round of testing, everything went off well and seeing a smile of approval on the face of the inspector, I said – third time lucky for me. “Maybe,” he said, “but it is not over yet. You still need to take a viva voce on traffic rules.” Fortunately I was well-prepared and finally cleared the toughest examination in my life.

A few days later, after collecting my driving licence I asked the inspector why he had made it so difficult for me. He looked deep into my eyes and said, “Look Mani, if I give you the licence when you are not yet ready for it, I will put not only your life but also your family’s life at risk.”

Profound words indeed! They ring loud in my ears whenever I read news items involving road accidents. Today, if I consider myself a safe driver, it is because of that dutiful and tough, yet affable, Zambian traffic inspector.

umamani@hotmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 11:01:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/The-paths-to-safe-driving/article14508048.ece

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