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DISTRESS SIGNALS

Seething streets

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It usually begins with an angry glare. Then the choicest abuses and blows follow. Eventually, it leads to smashed windscreens and broken bones. Sometimes, even knives and guns are pulled out. It may sound like a scene from a B-grade thriller, but situations like these are now a common occurrence on roads across the country. Earlier this month, in Delhi, a restaurant manager died when an airline pilot ran him over after their vehicles scraped each other's at the national capital's posh Khan Market area.

In a similar incident in December, 24-year-old deliveryman Gaurav Kumar lost his life because of a scratch on someone's car. He was pushed so hard that his head hit the sidewalk in a fatal fall. Once rare in India, such cases of road rage are increasing.

Prema Rajagopalan, a sociologist with IIT-Madras, calls the phenomenon a Delhi-specific problem. "Many drivers in the capital are inebriated - either with alcohol or with power - and they are a lot more aggressive than those in Chennai or Bangalore, " she says. "They believe if you have the money, you flaunt it with your big, shiny new car, and you assert yourself forcefully on the road. "

To an extent, Rajagopalan is correct in her observation. But though a significant chunk of road rage headlines originate from the National Capital Region, an increase in such incidents has been observed in other cities too. And it's not just the loutish men who are the perpetrators. In Bangalore recently, a 28-yearold female executive in a software firm slapped a biker and sprayed pepper on his face for grazing her car. A couple of weeks ago, another 57-year-old driver was stabbed by some bike-borne assailants after his car hit their bike. Scour through the local newspapers in any Tier I or II city, and you will come across such incidents.

The problem of road rage goes far beyond the issues of poor infrastructure, inexperienced drivers, the number of cars crowding the highways and inadequate policing. "When people go as far as killing somebody over a petty quarrel, we should know something is terribly wrong with the society, " says Sadhna Vohra, a Delhi-based psychologist.

Vohra points at the increasing stress of urban life and the emphasis on competitiveness as key factors for this phenomenon. "Everybody is under some sort of pressure - at work and at home. You may have to get to office on time or you may lose the plum promotion to a jealous rival. Maybe you have had a fight with your wife or husband. The pent-up rage among residents of most cities, particularly Delhi, is almost palpable. No wonder people lose their cool over trivial issues. " Sometimes, it is the anonymity that provokes antisocial behaviour.

Shashank Jaiswal is a 34-year-old who is only now learning to drive at a Noida-based driving school. "I have never been able to muster the courage to drive a car on Delhi roads, " he says. "Everybody is so aggressive. "

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