Water tankers, a nightmare for road-users

Just a few feet away from the site of a recent serious accident on Nelson Manickam Road, a water tanker is seen in peak-hour traffic on Wednesday.  

CHENNAI NOV. 6. Water tanker lorries notched up a full century last month in a 10-month innings.

According to Chennai City Traffic Police statistics, the vehicles, apart from serving residents, were also involved in 100 accidents from January 1 to October 31, resulting in 23 deaths, 14 grievous injuries, 55 simple injuries and eight cases, where no one was hurt. The convictions in the cases against the drivers have been few and far between. "There are few convictions as we do not get witnesses. And even in case they are convicted, the drivers are penalised between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 4,000. Imprisonment of the driver is very rare," says a senior police officer.

Drivers, arrested and booked under Section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code (Causing death by rash and negligent act), get bail and are back at the wheel without hassles, as they retain their licences.

Though the police files attribute most of the accidents to the fault of the lorry drivers, there are also pointers towards extraneous factors such as lack of pedestrian pathway and separate cyclist lane. Ten fatal accidents this year have resulted in death of pedestrians and cyclists.

"Water tankers have created a fear psychosis among road-users today. The immediate response on sighting a vehicle is to slow down and make way. The general perception is that the water tanker drivers do not follow rules," according to M. B. Nirmal, founder-president of Exnora International.

The NGO had coordinated with the Chennai Traffic Police a few years ago to create a cyclist lane on Ponamallee High Road, but the efforts ended in vain with the road markers being stolen overnight.

Some of the tanker drivers said they were under pressure to undertake maximum number of trips every day. Metrowater alone employs 465 lorries and 130 mini-lorries (of 6,000-litre capacity) to undertake 6,500 trips a day. "The storage levels in the reservoirs are precarious and we are not able to operate our pipeline supply. We have been able to provide only tanker supply," says a senior Metrowater official. This year alone the government agency has cancelled work orders to 10 lorries, enforcing tender conditions that vehicles involved in fatal accidents should not be allowed to operate.

The drivers of Metrowater vehicles, however, work under stress and are forced to sleep in their vehicles. Besides, most are from the districts and see their job as a temporary assignment. In the process, they do not get the rest they need.

Some of the residents living in Lake Area, Nungambakkam, close to the Metrowater Valluvar Kottam filling point, point out another potentially life-threatening practice that is common with the drivers.

"They employ cleaners to drive the vehicle in and out of the filling point. We have raised the issue several times in vain. The only way to solve the problem is to provide the drivers some resting quarters," says a resident.

On October 12, a 14-year-old girl was killed when a private water tanker, from which she was collecting water near her house at Thirumangalam, ran over her. Investigation revealed that the cleaner of the vehicle was responsible for the death as he started the vehicle without realising that the driver had left it in reverse gear.

Mr. Nirmal called for closer coordination between Metrowater and the traffic police to restrict the number of trips any driver takes.

"They must monitor the number of trips every vehicle and driver makes in a day. The drivers are obviously stressed," he said, adding that there still might be little control over the private water tankers that ply during nights.