Red Light, Red Light
I think the first and last time I have heard my father curse (and by curse I mean a whopper of an expletive) was in our car. I remember being more stunned by the fact that he cursed out loud than the mad bus driver who had almost run us over like we were in a cartoon movie (in which when you’re run over you simply stretch thin and then shake yourself back to normal size).
Driving in Pakistan is an incredible phenomenon. It defies all rationality and once again, if we were cartoons, just a couple of minutes out on the road would make our heads explode in a burst of disbelief. But of course, since our heads stay intact – physically, usually, - the disbelief gives way to frustration, anger, temporary insanity. Especially in Karachi, a mad city bursting with machismo that erupts out on the roads.
In Karachi, we don’t believe in traffic rules. We like to think of them as suggestions, something to follow occasionally, almost accidentally. Just like the city itself, how people end up making it to their destinations everyday is a beautiful mystery, a middle finger to all the forces that want to crush the city’s boundless, reckless spirit.
We have the brazen bikers who visualize all bigger vehicles as insignificant beetles to zoom past or edge in front of, delusional about issues of mortality; the bulky buses, metal carcasses painted brightly and cheekily, barreling down narrow streets like the Devil’s personal transport, stopping without warning to pick up passengers in the middle of the road, defying all limits of space, these big bad bullies are second only to the city’s black Prados that move like lions in a jungle, who needs roars and claws when you have big guns and bigger egos?
Magic realism abounds in Pakistan, most obviously on the roads. There are things people in other countries only do in their nightmares – like finding themselves going the wrong way on a road, headlong into oncoming traffic. Seriously, drivers and pedestrians often test the limits of reality, making me blink in amazement, scrawling incredulity in thought bubbles above my head.
Too many times I have toyed with the idea of smashing my car into vehicles driven by rude idiots who turn without indicators, honk when I’m actually going the right speed in the right lane, obnoxiously close behind like dogs nosing dumb sheep. I talk constantly when I’m in the car, addressing other drivers and pedestrians, half believing they can hear me. The commentary worries my mother who is a calm slow driver very rarely pushed to honk. I think she rightly wonders if I am not-so-slowly losing my mind when I’m in the car.
And honestly, after Karachi, driving in Islamabad is almost like meditation. It is also like a two-year-old who knows how to run being placed in a pen full of mild babies who crawl with their seatbelts on. People in Islamabad wear their seatbelts! They get fined for talking on the phone while driving (whereas in Karachi you are more likely to get mugged than ticketed – also an effective way to get people to stop talking on the phone while in the driving seat?) and the most shocking thing of all, vehicles actually stop when the light turns red. Not only that, even after the light turns green you have a couple of seconds to change gears, release the handbrake, take a sip of your Coke, without having cars honk at you (the language of horns and honks, from the short bleep of ‘heads up I’m passing you by, wavering car’ to the obnoxious repetitive ‘get the hell out of my way’ and the worst hand-on-the-horn-for-several-seconds that is akin to a string of expletives polluting your auditory environment).
Every time this happens I first resist the urge to honk at the slow drivers of Islamabad who don’t zoom ahead as soon as the light turns green and then quickly remember that this is a good thing and then I nod in admiration. I had been wondering for a while how traffic became so regulated here and whether Karachi can learn anything from their counterparts in the capital city.
And then I almost got my first ticket when I made a U-turn a split-second after the light had turned red and was politely ushered to the side of the road by a young cop. Maybe it was my totally bullshit argument about the motorbike on my side who 'confused' me or the fact that my license told him I’m from Karachi and thus new to a traffic system that is actually imposed (most likely it was my mother’s respectful apology and assurance that we never break the rules, which is 89% accurate).
Regardless, the almost-ticket was/is a warning good enough to keep me in line (pun intended) for a while. It also makes me realize that we don’t really need a new moral conscience or a social revolution to improve Karachi’s road experience. We just need an efficient traffic police department that is paid well and provided incentives to do their job.
I educated myself by browsing the Islamabad Traffic Police (ITP) website. Apparently the department was revamped and inaugurated in 2006, and there is actually a mission, vision and set of goals! My favorite is ‘to achieve the target of zero tolerance with firmness but politeness’. According to the department, many of their goals have been achieved, including the ideal of fining even politicians (former prime minister Gilani’s son being one of them powerful people chosen as an example of equality). Cooperating with other city government departments, using media tools and awareness campaigns, introducing a complaint/helpline and digitalizing the driving license system appear to be some easy-to-replicate ideas.
Maybe one day we can revert to the fabled days of the past when law enforcement was a practical reality and not just a slogan scrawled as graffiti on the walls of our city.