Apr 072008

Traffic jams are bad in both San Jose and Bangalore (or any major city in India). The difference is that in San Jose it is not accompanied with noise pollution.

The way the system works in India, honking is a necessary evil. You have the most absent-minded, trustworthy and fatalistic pedestrians here: they just assume that the driver will stop. You need to honk. You also may need to honk to encourage the cow to stop admiring your car and cross the road. However, it can be minimized a great deal.

However, there are those who think that their time is more valuable that that of the pedestrians and honk continuously so that they don’t have to slow down. When the traffic light turns green, they start honking right away. Some of the drivers of call center Tata Sumos and Maruti Omni taxicabs honk continuously even though the traffic is moving at a good clip. At gated apartment complexes, many of drivers can’t wait a few seconds for the guards to lift the barrier pole: they honk. A few months back, in my apartment complex, they put a sign “1000 Rs fine for honking” ($25). I asked the guard if they collected any fine. He said no. I told him “1000 rupees is steep and no one will pay it. You should start with Rs 5.” Offenders can be forced to pay Rs. 5 as it is not much and hopefully they won’t do it again. Honking has reduced but happens a few times each day.

At last, awareness of this issue is increasing. Media also is helping by highlighting this issue. You have no-honking signs near schools and hospitals. Today it was a “No honking day” in Mumbai. It seems over 4000 offenders were fined.

What else — other than educating drivers and levying fines — can be done? In my previous post, I wrote that the laws of man (speed limits) can be ignored but laws of nature (speed breakers) cannot. Similarly, technology should come to the rescue. There are several things that can be done:

  • Ban honking for a week in select cities to gauge the impact. Pull over offenders, give them a brief lecture on noise pollution, put a sticker “I was caught honking” on the vehicle. Can also use Gandhigiri tactics and give them some candy.
  • Regulation on the allowed decibel level. I am sure there is already such a thing.
    • Vehicle manufacturers should abide by these regulations
    • After-market vendors should be heavily fined if they sell horns that exceed this level
    • Air horns should be banned. They are now allowed in rural areas.
    • Periodic inspections of vehicles on the road to check for compliance. Even if money exchanges hands and the problem is not fixed, the owner has an incentive as it costs him money.
  • Education: The employees who share a daily cab (Tata Sumo) should educate the driver and tell him to stop unnecessary honking. If he doesn’t listen they can ask for a different cab driver.
  • Technology to the rescue. As I said earlier, honking cannot and should not be totally eliminated:
    • Unlike automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons force the killer to squeeze the trigger each time. Similarly, horn should sound for a very brief period and stop. The driver has to press the horn again. This will not prevent someone from honking but requires more work on his part. The electronics required to do this is quite inexpensive. We can call this the Smart horn.
    • An extension of the above scheme is that once the horn sounds and stops, the horn won’t work for 2 seconds. This extension can also be implemented inexpensively in hardware. Someone was commenting on TV today that if the driver cannot step on the gas, he will step on the horn. This simple mechanism will force him to slow down as he cannot use the horn to drive at unsafe speeds in a crowded area.
      • The actual figure whether it is 2 seconds or 1 second or 1.5 second can be arrived at after some experimentation. It can also be made dependent on the speed of the vehicle but may not be feasible due to higher product cost. It can also be made dependent on the time of the day: the minimum period between honks can be increased to say 5 seconds at night (10 pm to 6 am)
      • Smart Horn vendors will find a ready market in places like Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, South America and the Indian subcontinent — this will bring down the cost of the product so that it is affordable for owners of two-wheelers.
      • Employers can subsidize the cost of installing this horn.
      • Cops can easily catch offenders.
    • GPS technology can be used to make sure that horns don’t work between 10 pm and 6 am in congested areas. GPS is being used in many countries to check speeding. GPS technology is getting cheaper everyday. It can initially be made mandatory for passenger cars/vans costing more than say 6 lakhs.
    • A technology cheaper than that of GPS may be the use of road side transmitters in congested areas. When the receiver in the horn receives the signal, it will disable the horn from sounding for 10 seconds. The transmitter can be turned on near schools, hospitals and other sensitive areas. In other congested areas, it can be turned on between 10 pm and 6 am and during peak hours. It is convenient that India has only one time zone and so this time based control won’t cause any problems.
      • The cost of installing and maintaining transmitters can be borne by third-parties who get to put advertising signs at or near the transmitter.
      • These transmitters can be used for other purposes such as announcing traffic delays, road conditions etc. to other receivers on vehicles.
      • Adding security to ignore unauthorized transmitters may not be cost effective. Police cars can monitor unauthorized transmissions and can take appropriate action.
  • Public service announcements on radio and tv channels using famous personalities. Periodiic announcements in the televisions sets in all the cafeterias in IT and other companies.
  • Friendly rivalry between States (instead of language rivalry) as to which State has the most considerate drivers.

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