Strapped to safety?

MY FIRST encounter with seat belts was in the U.K. way back in the Eighties. I was quite intrigued about the feature and its compulsory use in cars. The law that forbade children under 12 riding in the front passenger seat also suitably impressed me. They too had to be belted into their special seats or back seat.

With the mushrooming of foreign automobile companies entering the manufacture and sale of cars in India, seat belts are available as an automatic accessory but never used. In fact, one could identify the foreigner or the ubiquitous NRI visiting the homeland by their habit for wearing the seat belt.

The rules, they are a-changing. In India, if there is a road, there is a driver in any kind of vehicle that can be fitted with wheels and a motor. In Delhi and Mumbai the compulsory use of the seat belt in the front seat of an automobile has been made mandatory. The breaking of the rule attracts a heavy fine from the occupants. Our own Chennai has also decided to fall in line with the image of a global metropolis and the compulsory use of seat belts that is gradually being introduced.

Fine! Lets fall in line and belt up. After all, the rule is meant to be safeguarded from dire threats from the impact of the steering wheel on the driver and the windscreen and front console on the passenger riding in the front, in case of any accidents. Air bags are also available for an extra price from the manufacturers and one can breathe easy that whiplash and lung collapses can be avoided. Noble thought indeed.

The bee in my bonnet buzzes with questions. Don't auto drivers need a seat belt? What about the passengers in the back who are already victims of spinal and cervical problems? How about the dozen school-going kids loaded into the back of the vehicle who are, at the best of times, imps of Satan on the prowl in that one square metre of generous space? Or maybe their backpack straps and the load of books would protect them from injuries acting as ballasts and armour? The new entrant, the share auto with more passengers, and a teenager hanging half out of the front window, soliciting passengers would be severely tied down by any kind of safety belt.

The next case is that of the man in a hurry, two-wheeler rider, zipping and zigzagging through peak traffic with his wife, infant clutched in her hands on the precarious back seat. How can one get any of them to compulsorily wear a belt or even a helmet and a sling to hold the infant, like the tourists who carry their children papoose-style?

The bus driver and the conductor would find it impossible to wear any kind of restraint on their free souls. The passengers can cling to the tiny strap hanging from the overhead bar or the vertical steel holds which can seriously injure the rib with a thwack when our Formula Ten bus driver applies his brakes. The belting of the footboard travellers is beyond the purview of imagination.

Fish carts, with or without motors, tempos with unwieldy pipes and sheets of wood and marble, cartons of goods, baskets of vegetables and vendors perched precariously on banana bunches, unsecured containers loaded higgledy-piggledy and waiting to fall on unsuspecting pedestrians are only some of the other elements of traffic on Chennai roads. Don't forget the behemoth, the water tankers that have to quench the thirst of a water-starved public are driven by men firmly tied to a time schedule.


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