Better design of city roads can and must deliver safety

My twitter feed and today’s newspapers are full of lament over the tragic death of Rural Development Minister Gopinath Munde, who is considered a rising star in the newly elected BJP government. Munde died of internal injuries sustained in a road accident caused by speeding and rash driving (it’s controversial who was the culprit, his own driver or the one who hit him).

The tone of the lament heavily leans towards the political implications of losing an important political persona. A few articles here and there talk about the issue that stares us in he face- If a Minister on the central government dies in a road accident in the central part of the capital, what hope is there for the millions who use this country’s roads everyday. Should we not use this incident to highlight and drive home the need to do something about killer roads?

India’s road safety record is perhaps the most dismal in the world- 140,000 ppl died in 2012 alone as per official records, one death in every 4 minutes! Often we consider only fatal motor accidents. Many pedestrians and cyclists die every day and many more are severely injured. The fact that the majority of those injured and killed are the urban poor, whom no one mourns except their families, is one of the reasons these issues never make it to the government’s priority list!

Mulling over the the press coverage and adding knowledge gleaned from friends and colleagues (Special thanks to Bharat Singh, Romi Roy, Nipesh P Narayanan, Monolita Chatterjee, Amit Bhatt and Sarika Panda Bhatt), I’d like to make a few points about the issue of road safety in India.

On policy: A revised Motor Vehicle Amendment Bill has been pending in Parliament for a decade, which will bring in stricter consequences for traffic violations like speeding and drunken driving. However, experts say that the provisions in this law are outdated already. The Hindu today carries a piece on how UN goals need to be actualized, in which Save LIFE Foundation founder Piyush Tewari says: “The sole statute governing road safety in India, the Motor Vehicles Act-1988 (MVA), has proved ineffective in addressing any of these issues decisively. Even the last tabled Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2012, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2012, was archaic and contained recommendations which will not solve the current situation on Indian roads.” 

On road design: Of the three factors- human behavior, driving behavior and infrastructure- the third is the most easily fixable while the other two take time and a combination of awareness building as well as stringent policy formulation and implementation. The best way to fix transportation infrastructure is through improved road design. There is considerable evidence to show that flyovers and pedestrian foot overbridges are NOT the way forward for city roads. Rather, controlling speeds and offering cyclists and pedestrians at-grade crossings is the humane and intelligent way to design roads in the city. This means accepting that the automobile is one of many modes in the scheme of things and not all-important and this is a huge mindset change that needs to come in if we want safer cities to live in.

Let me use an example closest to home to explain what I mean. As mentioned in coverage in Hindustan Times today, one fatal accident happens every month on the road that I live in- Sohna road in Gurgaon. The road is designed as a highway instead of a city road, complete with crash barriers on the median, slip roads and minimum crossover points. The automobile is encouraged, by design, to speed up to 60-80 kms per hour and experts tell me the road is probably designed for over 100 km per hour speeds!

Stand on the road at any time and you will see pedestrians run across the road, climb over or under these ugly metallic barriers and then dart across the remaining stretch on the other side. There are no traffic signals for pedestrians to cross at all on the entire 4 km stretch despite heavy residential and commercial activity on the road. This is a complete design failure and therefore the roads deaths are also designed to happen. The authorities mus take cognizance that they are responsible for people dying and losing livelihoods owing to injuries every single day!

The HT Gurgaon edition carried a piece today on our citizen activism to make Sohna Road safer. Let's start with our own neighborhoods.

The HT Gurgaon edition carried a piece today on our citizen activism to make Sohna Road safer. Let’s start with our own neighborhoods.

Friends and acquaintances within the design community have started various initiatives to convince the government to involve both designers and citizens during the conceptualization of infrastructure projects. A failure to do this will only create more inhuman cities to the detriment of everyone.

On changing ourselves: I harp on this all the time, but I see merit in self-reflection on these issues as citizens. We all care for our own lives and the safety of our families, but do not do anything about it. Starting with changing our own behavior behind the wheel. So sensitizing ourselves to better road behavior and above all, including pedestrians and cyclists in our scheme of things, is important. We plan to take this up on Sohna Road through RWAs soon.

In another way, it is our reluctance to engage with local politics that allows government officials to get away with ad hoc decisions, poor planning and design resulting in unsafe neighborhoods. It is our duty to be aware of what is happening in our neighborhood and the more who involve themselves to raise a voice for improved governance, the better our lives will get!

Join us in our fight for better roads in Gurgaon by spreading the message that Better design is the most effective solution to safer roads and decreased casualties. By better design we mean roads designed to control speeds, proper at-grade crossover points for pedestrians and cyclists, footpaths and cycle paths to be included, properly designed speed brakers (not the poorly constructed car breakers we get), etc. There are guidelines available for urban roads with Ministry of Urban Development and UTTIPEC and we need to pressurize MCG and HUDA (and other local authorities wherever you are) to follow these and not bring in ad hoc designs that kill more people and make driving and walking a nightmare in our city.

An afternoon with the Traffic Police: Learning about citizen action

People like me, those who read a lot and write a lot and talk a lot, tend to be armchair activists. Especially when you work in the development sector, it’s hard to actually wear the hat of the citizen activist. I’ve put the tips of my fingers into several pies and then pulled out, feeling confused, under confident and sometimes just disillusioned.

Mine isn’t a novel story, I know. But last week,  I had the opportunity to take off my thinking & analysis cap and became a do-er. Inspired by Aparna, who lives in my community and believes in taking the bull by its horns, I joined a group approaching the Traffic Police to engage in a constructive conversation about specific traffic-related issues in our neighborhood.

To offer a background, I live in a housing condominium on Sohna Road. It is a significant six-lane highway that connects Gurgaon to the Sohna town and then further to Palwal, which lies on National Highway 2. The road sees huge amounts of traffic. In addition to inter-city traffic, Sohna Road has some of the densest residential developments in the city and the volume of local traffic generated is also a lot. Gurgaon’s infrastructure is patchy and constantly under development. After a painful few years in which the road was being upgraded, widened, dug for sewer lines and so on and so forth, we now more or less have the 6 lanes in place with service lanes on both sides. However, erroneous placement of cuts, wrong parking on service lanes, intersections without traffic lights and many such niggling issues make this stretch of the Gurgaon-Sohna road very dangerous for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

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No traffic lights at this very busy junction. Result: Chaos and a huge strain on traffic police personnel

Video credit: Siddharth Chopra

Our demands

We (Aparna, Siddharth and me, who all live in the same condo) went in with a letter that Aparna had drafted to the Traffic Police asking for:

1-More effective traffic management at Subhash Chowk, a major intersection where a flyover is being constructed. The construction will go on for many months and there has been no temporary solution provided for managing traffic with the roads in very poor condition.

2-An erroneously designed pair of cuts on the divider and the opposite service lane on this stretch  because of which vehicles cut across and drive on the wrond side of the highway!

3-A solution for a poorly managed T-junction right outside our condo that is a traffic nightmare. The picture and video depict that point.

4-Removal of vehicles parked along the service lane that also causes traffic blockages at entry and exit points for residential and commercial complexes

Our experience

The officer we were to meet wasn’t available when we landed up at the Traffic Police office, but a junior policeman was kind enough to hear us out and advise us to catch hold of the Deputy Commissioner Police (DCP) for Traffic who was just about to head out with a pair of smug and smart looking men driving an expensive car! The DCP, upon learning we were residents of the city with a list of concerns, retreated into his office and heard us out. He was a bit high handed, but he did instruct the concerned Assistant Commissioner Police (ACP) to attend to our needs. This gentleman, who was newly posted to Gurgaon and barely familiar with its roads, called in the Traffic Inspector (TI) for our stretch and opened up his duty roster to us in a very transparent manner to discuss how we could delegate people more efficiently for smoother management of the traffic. Unfortunately, the police can’t do much to improve infrastructure and it has to petition the development authorities (HUDA- Haryana Urban Development Authority) or the local government (MCG- Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon) for making any physical improvements including improved street lights, traffic signals, road condition, speed breakers and even for cranes to carry away wrongly parked vehicles!

What we learnt OR  Things to remember while making requests to government departments

  • Government departments are restricted in terms of their jurisdiction, so we need to have a clear knowledge of who can do what
  • Writing letters is not in vain. Officers do get concerned when complaints come in, but follow up meetings and phone calls are important to drive home the points being made
  • A tone of consultation and partnership works better than one of confrontation; we do need to remember that officers are stressed and overworked. In this case, we felt bad pushing the TI Mr Jai Singh further because we all know how hard working and helpful he usually is. But we were upset by the casual attitude of the DCP, who seemed to want to deflect the blame for accidents rather than addressing the problems
  • Persistence is key. We now need to follow through on our requests and join forces with more concerned residents to place relentless pressure on the authorities till the important problems find solution

The real issue is one of poor road sense and attitude

While we pushed the police for solutions and while we are pushing the authorities for infrastructure, the real problem lies in the horrible way people drive in our city. There is a certain culture of driving each city has and in Gurgaon, that culture is aggression and a blatant flouting of traffic rules. We’re all in a blame game about who the offenders are, but the fact is everyone does- executives in big sedans, taxi drivers, young people, local villagers, drivers of public transportation, we are all to blame. We were, on our way back, talking about how we can change this in Gurgaon. How can we change the conversation from They drive badly to Let me not drive badly. Road attitude and etiquette, following traffic rules and thinking about safety for pedestrians and cyclists are important and it would be great to begin an awareness drive towards this.

Do write back if you have innovative ideas about such an awareness campaign or have seen something like this being done in your community, or elsewhere. Would love to hear from you.

Goofy experiences aboard the Delhi Metro #iloveDilli

What are they doing? What are they doing? I looked on in disbelief as the two young men sitting opposite me in the Delhi Metro coach proceeded to be engaged in an activity that I have gladly left far behind in my childhood. Won’t keep you hanging…one of the young men was searching, with great concentration, the other young man’s head for lice! And then catching something and squishing it between his fingers!

I fought down the surge of panic. In my childhood, I had a perpetual lice problem and applying the dreaded smelly DDT and later the mild and often ineffective Mediker were Sunday rituals. I told myself these people were a full three feet away and surely, lice cannot jump that long!

Then my panic gave way to amusement. These two were oblivious of how bizarre their actions were. They were in their own world and acted as if weeding lice off each others’ hair on the Delhi Metro was the most natural thing in the world!

Just before this, an aunty had reached out on the platform and quickly pulled down my t-shirt because it had ridden up a bit; she did it as if she was personally shamed by my wardrobe mishap! Soon after the lice picking scene, two ‘senior citizen’ ladies with the blackest possible hair were discussing loudly across the aisle whether the footwear they were wearing was appropriate for the rainy weather, with one lady showing off her intelligence and pointing to her ‘boot’ repeatedly, which was in fact a rather run down sports shoe!

You want your set of goofy experiences people, just board the Delhi Metro anytime! The tickets aren’t too expensive and the entertainment is free!

Navigating cities can be hard! A Delhi Metro story

I was returning from Delhi on the metro on Friday evening. It was only four but the metro was quite packed. I got into a general compartment being quite sick of the scenario on the ladies reserved one! And I was glad. For a few stops later, an entire wedding band trooped in. They were being ushered in by a man who seemed really confident. A savvy dilliwala, I thought.
I stood all the way, but many of the bandwalas squatted on the floor of the coach. They had no idea it was not permitted and no one said anything to them either. Rather sad looking men they were, in grubby white uniforms with bright red accents. The uniform of the bandwala, another strange legacy of the Raj here in north India. Sometimes they whispered amongst themselves. But mostly they just sat and stared. I wondered about their lives. Where did they come from? Who taught them to play all these unusual instruments, the saxophone, the large drums, etc.
Once we crossed the M G Road station and the train was rather empty, I noticed the man who seemed in charge of them get rather agitated. He pulled out a piece if paper from his shirt pocket and looked around hopefully. I offered to help. On the paper I could see “park hotel” written in devnagari. I asked them to get off at huda city centre and cross the road. But I had a moment of doubt and asked to see the paper again, only to realise they needed to get to the City Park Hotel that was near the toll on NH8!
This hotel is not here, it’s on the jaipur highway, I told the man. A completely bewildered look. But this is gurgaon isn’t it? This is where we were told to go!
In the nick of time, on my insistence, they got off at Iffco Chowk, me shouting instructions to get to the highway and figure out how to reach! Poor bandwalas shuffled out with heavy feet and long faces. Another evening of escorting some happy groom and his gleeful family and perhaps drunk brethren to his wedding. I doubt it touched them, the glitz of the Great Indian Wedding, to which their jazzy red cummerbunds and gilded headgear adds south sparkle. I hope they got to the wedding in time. I hope they got paid enough. This is, after all, their time to make their bucks before they go back to languishing wherever they do for the rest of the year when not many people get married in this part if the country!
And I thought about how difficult it is for even a reasonable confident dilliwala. A guy who runs a band business or at least works as the band owners manager; if he can’t get around, what hope is there for an illiterate person, an outsider, an under confident traveller? Maybe the Delhi government should have services at bus stands and stations to help people navigate this city better. I envisage touch screens that make this networks simple to comprehend and bring smiles to those confused faces. I imagine an accessible city, a friendly city, a better city. It’s not enough to put in the infrastructure; we got to go one step further to make it usable, comprehensible, navigable to all.

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Metro musings: The gift of solitude in company

There is something hypnotic about being transported at high speed across the city crushed within a sea of human bodies. Zoom in and you see myriad expressions, people’s worries and preoccupations etched so clearly on their faces. The hassled employee late for work, the group of women armed with passes to go to the India International Trade Fair at Pragati Maidan, gloating over how they had lied to their bosses and mothers in law! College kids withdrawn into their own world, earphones welded into their ears. Groups of them yapping away, discussing boyfriends and profs and other stuff I no longer understand.

Zoom out and all the noise around subsides. All you hear is the rhythmic sound of the train on the track, the sound of comfort and excitement. The sound of motion, familiar from zillion childhood journeys and yet signifying another adventure, another destination.

It is impossible not to love this journey on the Delhi Metro. To me, it has come to mean precious time to myself. I read, I listen to music or I simply sit and imbibe the sights and sounds, the feel of Delhi citizens off to work, study or pleasure. It is a lively place, this train, despite some serious and glowering faces. Most of us seem to enjoy the status quo that comes with being on a train, suspended between somewhere and elsewhere. I see many lost in thought, one with themselves, introspective or simply dormant.

It is this opportunity that high speed travel offers that people around the world love so much. Many songs and books eulogise the metro experience in New York and the Tube in London has an iconic status for people across the works, even if they’ve never been to that city. The most bizarre scene in Skyfall, Bond’s latest, is the one jn which the train falls through a hole and crashes into the subterranean landscape of the tube. All who see it imagine the horror of being on a train that meets such a fate and we hate the bad guy who would want to go that to our beloved metro!

Indeed, I have come to love the Metro ride. I greet it as I would a dear friend and savour the experience each time. I remind myself that this is a gift we must appreciate, considering that only a few years ago we were helpless commuters with very few options.

Bumping along to Kota on half built highways- Oct 20, 2012

We are finally braving a road trip with the kids. In a Mahindra Xylo, the kids enjoying having the rear row all to themselves.
I say finally because after years of traveling with Udai, who was a placid baby and a happy traveler, Aadyaa’s restless nature was hard to deal with. She did not settle easily in the car seat as a baby and was easily bored. We stopped going anywhere by road if we could help it.
So today had been a good day with the children quite enjoying the drive, except for poor Sushma, the maid, who is motion sick every so often.
I don’t blame her. The roads have been patchy indeed. The Gurgaon to Jaipur stretch of NH8 has a series of half constructed flyovers. Traffic crawls along narrow slip roads and passengers stare at the numerous seemingly inactive work sites.
Though the latter half of this route gets better, crossing Jaipur is a challenge as well. The bypass is under construction and traffic passes a large slum area, close enough to literally glimpse the routine activities of the residents here.
The first hour on Tonk Road after Jaipur towards Kota was another stretch of road construction. Bumpy as hell. It was alarming to see how far out from the city real estate projects are bring built. Jaipur is growing fast, like many tier 2 cities across India. But we fail to grasp the ground reality of this. While the main city of Jaipur fights hard to preserve its identity and heritage, in contrast these outlying suburbs are being built with little sense of design or relevance to the context of this region, historical or climatic.
For a short while now, starting shortly before Tonk, we have the fortune of smooth roads. Here too, only two of the four lanes are operational so it’s not easy driving. Like countless infrastructure projects across India, we can only hope this will be a dream ride some day in the future. Till then, we bump along!
The funny thing is, the road expansion means all those endearing little milestones are gone, as is the quaintness of those tree lined two lane roads of yore. The pleasure of seeing the names of the places we pass and the distance remaining lost, we must resort to google maps!

Connectivity is key and transit oriented development the future- July 11, 2022

Experts tell us that many of today’s urban problems are related to the lack of connections between people and their workplaces. That makes me wonder at the relationship between reactive planning and planning for the future. In India, cities are constantly playing catch up in terms of the planning process. This is so ingrained that even new urban centres make little effort to plan ahead, assuming that corrective action can always be taken.
It surprises me that employers make the choice to locate in areas that are inaccessible. By public transport at least. In Gurgaon, certainly, employers were lured by better quality and relatively affordable commercial office space, but I doubt they exerted adequate pressure on the developers and the government to deliver on access and public transport. The dependence on automobiles, largely personal cars, is unquestioned. Not much is being said about the loss of productivity as a result of ridiculously long and stressful commutes to work. Not to mention the cascading effect on the lives of employees in terms of less family and leisure time, etc. People end up feeling ‘disconnected’ in many ways, not just in terms of access between home and work.
Does this mean cities should not permit the development of office space except along planned transit routes? In today’s urban scenario in India, this is nearly impossible. Developers will respond to the growing demand for space and governments will play catch up for many more years. But it is possible perhaps for new urban extensions to plan transit for the next couple of decades so that future development configures itself around it. This is happening to an extent in the case of the Delhi Metro. Transit oriented development is a sane choice for future and Indian cities must introspect and make it happen. In the interests of sustainability, resource management and sanity!

Renewing my resolve to use public transport to explore my city better- May 18, 2012

So many of us criticize the cities we live in. We dislike the noise, the traffic, the delays, the stress of it all. And yet, we choose to stay on. Because of the opportunities large cities offer us.

Many a times, these opportunities are real and realized by most of us. Well paying and challenging jobs, good schools, and access to good facilities for entertainment, shopping, etc. But often times, we are attracted to benefits that are at best theoretical, rarely used in practice.  How many of us fully utilize the fantastic opportunity for exposure to the arts, for instance? Scores of friends I know have never been to a museum or art gallery while living in big cities for most of their lives, missing out on one of the most enriching experiences ever. And while I understand many have no interest in art, people like me who really want to go are so bogged down by the daily routine that it’s hard to make the break and do what you want to do!

Transportation and accessibility play a key role in this. Cities that have been automobile-centric for decades are in the trap of having created a culture of driving to places. So even when public transport does come into the picture, it takes years for people who do not need to drive to use public transport.  There is no culture of walking for instance, among the car riding population. Every type of public transit needs some amount of walking and without that walking habit, transit is not considered an option.

Lack of parking is a serious deterrent for those wanting to use the car to get somewhere. I have often cried shy of visiting exciting places in my city because of my anxiety about finding safe parking for my car.

When the Delhi Metro came to Gurgaon, I envisioned these countless family trips into Delhi. I do take the Metro to work often and my kids do love it, but it’s not too often that we all ride it into town to eat out, visit someone, shop or attend an event. We usually end up taking the car, for silly reasons. Finding parking at the Metro station is a problem. Last mile connectivity in Delhi is usually not such a serious issue, but can be if it gets late or during peak traffic. Frankly, we’re just not used to lugging the kids through public transit. Happy visions of being responsible citizens and traveling by Metro melt instantly when I think of carrying my kids back from the Metro to the car park. And if you were trying to take an auto within Gurgaon, most likely your driver would be all of 16 and driving so recklessly, all you can do is pray!

Last summer, we spent a week in Barcelona and used the Metro there extensively. It was exhausting, but we got used to it by Day 2 and factored in the time it would take to use public transit into our packed touristic schedule! The Delhi Metro is certainly a lot easier to use, I can vouch for that!

Even as I write this, I am strengthening my resolve to overcome these seemingly minor obstacles and expose my family to public transport. I think it is an essential if I would like my kids to become aware, responsible and resilient enough to face the urban environment of the future, which will be a lot more challenging!

Less roads, more pavements make sustainable, workable cities- March 7, 2012

I am not a transportation planner or an out-and-out socialist, but I do understand that it is totally unfair to have auto-centric cities when the majority of citizens use public transport. It enrages me to see this happen in Indian cities, where authorities pander to the middle classes and the rich, spending massive amounts on road widening and freeway building at the cost of shrinking and disappearing pavements. Then politicians go with a begging bowl back to the common man, who takes the bus and walks and cycles, to ask for votes when election time comes round!

Governments are supposed to work for the LARGER good and take decisions for the long-term benefit of the city. Indian cities have no real sense of community and there seems to be a complete disconnect between what passes for community and the guys who decide what’s good for the city.

I came across an interesting blog that described the community-centric development of Oviedo in Spain.The city has worked with ‘equality for pedestrians’ as an objective and actually reduced the width of roads and widened pavements in the last few years. At traffic lights, the yellow light shows a pedestrian crossing, to warn motorcar drivers that they need to watch out for people still crossing the road before they press on the accelerator! Small interventions can go a long way in improving safety and quality of life!

Another really cute initiative is the biker bus that makes the journey to school a safe, fun and eco-friendly experience for Dutch kids. See the happy contraption here!

There has been a movement to remove urban freeways in the United States and other nations. Freeways, built for faster movement of cars, have sliced through communities, displacing people and destroying entire neighborhoods for decades. Some cities have chosen to close their freeways down to create walkable spaces and seen economic revitalization as a benefit. Manhattan’s West Side Highway, that collapsed in 1973, was never replaced because citizens opposed plans for a new, bigger freeway. Instead, citizens got a waterfront park and bicycle paths they value much more. No one missed the freeway; traffic actually reduced. In Seoul, South Korea, the city’s only freeway was covered up and converted into a park. Bus ways were created instead!

In India, we continue to build freeways, widen roads, swallow pavements, charge ridiculously low parking fees even in prime market areas, continue to neglect public transport- we do this at the cost of our cities and our lives! But when ‘community’ means only Facebook pages and no grassroots connect, when no one asks the ordinary man what he needs and when politicians continue to be fascinated by solutions the West has already discarded, something is super wrong! Worse, the man riding the bicycle is sent the message that he must aspire for a scooter, then a car, rather than any attempt to encourage his already eco-friendly mode of transport.

We need to make changes to our lives. We need to convert automobile trips to ones made on public transport, at an individual level. We need to demand better public transportation from our governments. We need to carpool more. We can do so much; yet we sit by and believe our small changes won’t matter, so we can continue to not try. We vote for change but we have no means to ensure our demands are met. We are a democracy without teeth not because politicians are bad (yes, they are, but that is another story), but because we have not woken up!

We need a no tolerance attitude towards bad driving- Feb 21, 2012

When you wake up to news of disastrous car crashes two days in a row, you know its time to seethe about the poor traffic sense of the average Indian. Yes, poor road sense is one of the defining features of Indian urbanity- shocking, irritating and amusing, all at the same time!

This morning, as I drove back after dropping my daughter to school, I encountered some classic cases of road misbehavior in a short 15-minute drive. A smart executive was attending to his urgent business call while behind the wheel bang in the center of the road, hogging one half of two lanes. Clearly, the call was more important than his life or other peoples’ time! Impatient drivers continued to drive across a four-way crossing long after their lights had turned red, drastically bringing the time down for our side of the traffic to cross the intersection. Clearly, they needed to get to work before all the rest of us! I could go on…you get the drift, I’m sure!

The thing is, we all condone this sort of behavior. If not indulging in it, we certainly turn a blind eye when our cabbies, drivers or colleagues do the crazy stuff on the roads. Yet, we tut-tutted for real this morning when we read the front page news about two people being run over and killed by a Swift Dezire gone nuts. The media highlighted, of course, the fact that the deed was done by a car cleaner who had driven off with his master’s car!  The fact that many of us who are masters of cars ourselves drive irresponsibly is, apparently, besides the point. Case in point: Yesterday, we read about the guy who killed himself speeding his Lamborghini on narrow, grade-separated city roads!

We need a lot more awareness, stricter licensing and policing, education about road safety and rules starting school level to make things better. But how do we address the larger malaise of impatience and irresponsibility, a feeling that there will be no consequences to bad behavior? How do we understand that on the roads, irresponsibility could mean harm and even death and that someone else may have to pay for our mistakes? And how do we stop blaming the ‘other’ and look to fix ourselves up first!