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Monday, August 28, 2006

Caught in a car crash

People are travelling more than ever these days. A holiday in the middle of the week can be enough for some people to jump at the idea of driving out of town to a nearby picnic spot, a waterfall, or take a trek into the woods.

The Mumbai-Pune expressway has made it possible to go all the way to Pune in 2 hours, and what earlier used to take 4 hours. So people are whizzing up and down those smooth roads easily and more frequently. Here is a word of caution, yes, but not about overspeeding, but the repercussions of being in the right for a change, and still being victimized.

I know many people who drive in Mumbai, who must be tearing their hair out in frustration, every time they have to take their brand new car into the killing traffic. I must say, most Indians don’t drive with much respect for rules and road sense. (I’m Indian, so I know what I’m talking about and this isn’t a xenophobic statement). So, even if you are a good driver and you keep your distance and drive carefully, there’s going to be some moron somewhere, who will plan to kill you, or at the very least maim you.

On the open expressway, it is a real free for all. Cops are not around for miles and speed is genuinely any limit you chose to drive at. Also, poor driving sense is amply displayed on this stretch. So be careful. I’ve seen small cars like the Santro and Zen being so completely totaled, that they looked like they had been eaten by a machine and spat out. And of course, I shudder to think of the fate of people who got caught inside.

I’ve been in an accident on the Mumbai-Pune expressway and thankfully, my family and I came out alive, with my mum suffering mild scratches, where glass shards grazed her as the window splintered. My sister had a bruised rib, though she was sitting in the back, sandwiched between my mum and me. I wasn’t hurt at all, even though my brother had to swerve and almost climb over the road divider on my side, to avoid this state transport bus, that just pulled out in front of us, without signaling.

The bus rammed us and since we were going at 75 km an hour (for the uniniated, it is slow speed on the expressway), my brother had to get the car in control and so we stopped quite a bit away from the bus. The passengers of the bus had got out, but no one ventured near us. They were too busy tuned into the driver’s version of the story.

I remember telling them later that they didn’t have the decency to see whether we were alive or dead. The passengers stood around, gossiped and jumped to conclusions all in that 10 minutes it took us to recover from the shock of the collision and get out and walk back to the bus. Yes, another reason to be a careful driver is just this – people are not going to stop and help. They are more worried about the delay, than the accident. And because this bus was full of office-goers on the way home or to their shifts and who claimed to take the same bus every day, and knew the driver and conductor, they were even more convinced that we were at fault.

With people already prejudiced, you can’t expect them to help you and if you insist on asking for the bus driver’s licence number, you have another drama on your hands. The rule is that the driver can’t give you his licence number because he works for the state transport, and since the bus is the state’s property, the government is held liable for any damages that we seek and not the driver himself personally. How nice!

So now, not only is your car badly damaged, the crowd is getting inflamed because of the delay and also because you insist on the cops being present to file a report. On the expressway, a police station is usually 20-25 kms away, so tempers and frustrations are building. In the meanwhile, some of the bus’s passengers are bitching big time. Something like this: rich people-won’t take responsibility-show off contacts-delaying us-what do they think of themselves-our poor driver-poor us etc. I was honest enough to tell someone there, that one can expect small mentality from people like the driver, who probably doesn’t know better, but even some of the better-off passengers were displaying the typical narrow mindedness! This surely didn’t win me any admirers there, but the hell with it.

In such a situation you can’t win. But I still stand by my statement, that those passengers didn’t have any decency or manners. No one came over to see how damaged our car was or whether we were all okay or injured, until I made this comment. And this remark I made, did pinch a lot of the people there. Because, when two cops finally arrived almost four hours later (yes, we waited on the expressway for them with such a friendly crowd!), one man was furious. He told the cops, what did I mean by saying they didn’t have manners, is that the way to talk? Yes it is. You were there standing and watching the fun and when it began to pinch your conscience, you were forced to retaliate. This man also said something that, whether he realized it or not, showed off his class bias. I remember telling these people, that if this had been their own car, they wouldn’t be so quick to defend the driver.

This man later told the cops, that these people (ie. my family) think they are only ones who have driven or sat in a car; even I’ve driven a Mercedes. But that was just my point. You’ve ‘only driven’ a Mercedes, that belonged to someone else. Try owning one and then watch it getting mauled in an accident – there is a huge difference. Your anger would quickly be directed in the opposite direction, depending on, which vehicle your sitting in. Then, you would forget how many ‘best driver’ awards the bus driver had won.

There were many words exchanged in the heat of that moment. It was hugely stressful for us, and I admit that the bus’s passengers were delayed but this is a price you have to pay for being in accident - as if they didn’t know that. We would have to wait for the cops to file a statement, so that we could claim insurance, and it was too bad their driver was held up as result of it. After all, they were all standing up for him.

The passengers told us that the driver had just won the ‘best driver award’ from the state corporation and that he and the conductor really took care of the bus and the passengers. The conductor had installed a TV and VCR with his own money, so passengers had a good time. How nice, but did that really mean, he was right in ramming my car? None of the passengers, I spoke to could tell for sure what had happened, even the ones who had been looking out of their windows. Most said that they realised what had happened because of the noise of the crash!

When the cops came, they said that if we wanted to make a formal complaint, then the bus and our car would have to be taken back to their station and both the drivers would be given breath tests and then the vehicles would be checked for any mechanical faults and what speeds they were being driven at, and then statements would be taken down. Meanwhile, the bus and our car would be with them, so we would have to hire another car to go home and keep coming back, as and when the case progressed!

Do you realize how incredibly skewed the system is against the private vehicle owners? The conductor had called for a replacement bus but we had to call for a car, or just let this matter go. My dad called up a cop friend of his (that’s why it’s important to have contacts, something those passengers will learn, only when they are at the receiving end of this kind of unfairness), who told the cops at the scene, to file a statement there itself as a favour to him and that we won’t be pursuing the case, and that we needed the statement for claiming insurance, and that we won’t be holding the driver ‘personally’ accountable.

That’s how it really works – the law. The irony is that my father is a lawyer and he saw the nasty side of it for the first time in his 40 plus years of being in the profession.

By then, after 6 hours or so, the replacement bus had also arrived with a supervisor, who told us pretty much what the cops did and also told the cops that he wanted damages from us for the bus! So to get a statement written down on the site of the accident, we had to pay Rs 400 for the dent at the back of the bus.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the passengers also decided to test the waters and started yelling for “damages” for the time they had wasted there! Well, talk about man being a rational animal. Obviously, some people haven’t evolved that much. If there is way to milk other people’s misery, some people will find and use it.

It was the cops who calmed them down and told them to get into the bus as the matter had been resolved. Actually, if anything, it just shows how matters like these are never resolved. It left a very bitter taste in my mouth and I carried along a lot of unsaid comments for months after the accident, that I wanted to fling in those passengers’, cops, driver, conductor and supervisor’s faces.

I remember having the parting shot. I told the supervisor -- so this is why you guys kill for government jobs. Because you know you’ll never have to take responsibility for anything!

Written for www.dancewithshadows.com

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