March Issue 2018

By | Special Report | Published 7 months ago

Kamil will never forget the afternoon of December 21, when he was exposed to a vast anger lurking beneath the surface of Karachi’s streets. It came in the form of a Daihatsu Cuore. Recklessly switching lanes, the vehicle nearly collided with his. Startled, Kamil rolled down his window and asked, “What are you doing?”

That was all it took.

“The Cuore driver got out, took his belt off, folded it in half and proceeded to belt my car with the buckle-end,” recalls Kamil, a middle-aged businessman. By then, both cars were at a red light and traffic was at a standstill.

A minute earlier, it had seemed like a good day in a city that appeared to redeem itself in the winter months. But within seconds, Karachi had swung from one polar extreme to the other. “If the Cuore driver had broken my windscreen, the belt would have gone around my neck,” says Kamil. “Had the doors not been locked and the windows rolled up, he would have strangled me to death.”

Nobody helped. Inches away, in an adjacent car, two girls laughed through the entire incident, which lasted until the light turned green. Having noted down the number plate of the Cuore, Kamil learnt from the Clifton Police Station that it was a Careem vehicle.

“The atmosphere has become very strange in this city,” he laments. “The aggression on the streets of Clifton and DHA has multiplied tenfold; it is probably worse in other areas.”

This is hardly surprising in a city that currently has 4.4 million registered vehicles on its streets, with a thousand new vehicles added each day for the last five years, according to updated figures provided by the Excise, Taxation and Narcotics Control Department of Sindh. In 2018, the number of vehicles on Karachi’s streets is expected to increase to 6.5 million. It is a grim prospect for a metropolis in which commuters lack lane discipline — largely because there are no lanes.

An unexamined phenomenon in Pakistan, road rage lies under the radar of the law and media, occupying a grey area.

According to Dr Unaiza Niaz, psychotherapist and director of the Psychiatric Unit and Stress Research Centre, heavy traffic, congestion, time constraints and obstructions in large cities create a high-stress environment. “Everybody is uptight and on an edge,” she says. “Road rage makes people think unreasonably and illogically. They get angry at everyone — including the police.”

Such a chain of thought becomes habitual and, according to Dr Niaz, is infectious. It essentially boils down to a battle of the egos: to not react aggressively is to be weak. If you give way, or patiently wait for your turn, you are viewed as naive.

Although Kamil happened to be behind the wheel on the day of his unfortunate encounter, he normally doesn’t drive, having used a chauffeur for several years — a privilege not afforded to everyone. Chauffeur-driven, he is less involved with the traffic or any untoward incident that may occur. “If someone picks a fight with my driver, then at least I can be the mediating force, and prevent the situation from escalating,” he says.

Yet escalate it almost always does.

A vehicle belonging to Khawar Burney’s convoy, at Sahil Police Station.

“Road rage is only an expression of the aggression that resides within people,” says journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, whose ‘Karachi Diary’ column in the late 1970s and ’80s covered various facets of the metropolis, including its traffic problems. Dr Niaz too attributes it to “the inability to control one’s anxieties and frustrations in other aspects of life.”

Kamil has instructed his driver to maintain a safe distance from SUVs in particular, especially after the December 3 tragedy near Farhan Shaheed Park in Do Darya, where road rage led to the murder of 18-year-old Zafir Zuberi. It is a testament to how far anger drives people on Karachi’s trigger-happy streets.

Fahim Zuberi received a call from South City Hospital one Sunday morning, informing him that his son Zafir had been brought in with a gunshot wound. “He was soaked in blood,” Zuberi told Newsline. “He had been brought to the hospital dead.” Months after the incident, Zuberi is still in a state of disbelief. He can’t put it into feelings. “I feel like he has gone out with his friends and is about to return.”

Zafir had stepped out for breakfast with three friends, when their car accidentally hit a motorcycle. The bike was part of a convoy of four SUVs — regulars on the Do Darya drag racing and motorcycle stunt scene. “From an SUV in front of our car, Khawar Burney opened fire on us,” recalls Zaid, who was the first to be shot — in the shoulder. Burney was not aiming for the tires; his first two shots hit the bonnet. “As we passed Burney’s car, Zafir was shot,” says Zaid. The seats were soaked in blood. While Burney fled, his friends broke the car windows with the butt of a rifle, gave their prey a thrashing and stole their wallets, mobile phones and car keys.

“It is the parents’ responsibility,” says Zuberi, who feels that the streets of Do Darya in particular are dangerous as they are used for car races.

Left: Zafir Zuberi’s car on the day of the attack in DHA Phase VIII. (Photo courtesy: Sahil Police Station).

While the murder of an innocent youth grabbed national attention, its root cause — road rage — remains unaddressed and roams the streets freely. Day-to-day traffic incidents of lesser severity are brushed under the tarmac as part and parcel of life in Karachi. “When you feel that you are constantly being shortchanged on the street, your patience eventually runs out,” says Atif, who commutes daily from DHA to Sharah-e-Faisal and back — a jaw-grinding journey.

Vigos may have become a symbol of bad ettiquette on the road, but any vehicle can behave like a Vigo.

The 2.4 million motorcycles on Karachi’s streets make up just over half the total number of vehicles in the city. Moving in swarms like locusts, they are the merchants of road rage. At the same time, motorcyclists were victims in 60 per cent of all fatal traffic accidents in 2017.

Individuals who break traffic laws can engender widespread rage. Statistics indicate the fallout of existing trends. According to the Traffic Analysis Report 2017, 508,156 traffic tickets were issued to motorcyclists in District South alone for not wearing helmets. It was the highest number of tickets issued in any district of Karachi.

“I was told by a taxi driver that some motorcycles are deliberately driven with the headlights turned off,” says Kamil. Some believe that they target cars and provoke minor accidents so that they can push for financial compensation. But there is no proof to back this theory. And according to DIG Traffic Imran Minhas, the law does not guarantee that motorcyclists will receive compensation in such a scenario, especially if they are driving without headlights, which in itself is a violation of Rule 151 of the Motor Vehicle Rules 1969. In addition, “under Rule 34 of the Pakistan Highway Code, all slow moving vehicles — including motorbikes — are required to remain in the left lane and only use the right lane while overtaking,” says Minhas. “But motorcyclists do not seem to be aware of this and instead occupy every lane.”

After receiving a bullet in the shoulder and seeing his best friend shot dead, Zaid had not seen the last of road rage. In February, barely two months after the first incident, a motoryclist was banging on his car window after having rammed into the vehicle from behind.

Salahuddin says that although road rage is a universal phenomenon, Karachi is unique in the swiftness with which people become violent. “It is a cultural thing,” he continues. “As a society, we lack civility. In other countries people wait patiently for as long as two hours in a traffic-jam — but not in Karachi.” It is partly to do with upbringing, he says. Underprivileged citizens do not receive an education and are not properly socialised into living in the city. As an example, Salahuddin refers to the Pashtun drivers who used to run the ‘yellow double’ mini-buses. “They would exercise their tribal sense of freedom on the roads, as they had not been conditioned into Karachi’s lifestyle,” he says, pointing out that while every city has its own way of doing things, in Karachi there is a free-for-all: “Different communities live according to their own ways in little ghettos across the city.” Minibuses, along with privately owned buses currently operating within the city, accounted for 56 per cent of the traffic accidents in 2017.

But the underprivileged aren’t solely responsible for the chaos on the streets. Naeem Sadiq, who has done extensive research on the registration of vehicles in Pakistan, says that approximately 10 million people in the country own cars. “What should the remaining 190 million people do?” he asks. “There is no room on the streets for pedestrians or cyclists.” Due to a lack of proper foothpaths, zebra crossings and pedestrian bridges, 24 per cent of all fatal accidents in 2017 involved pedestrians.

According to Sadiq, the state caters only to the rich, which is why it focuses not on public transport, but on making room for more cars on the street. “In Pakistan, the government spends all its money on underpasses, flyovers and signal-free corridors. Even in Lahore, more money has been spent on these than on public transport,” he continues. “Who’s convenience are these thoroughfares being built for?”

A former commissioner of Larkana district, who requests not to be named, recalls seeing the convoy of a former minister for petroleum, who has since been indicted for financial corruption. “He had three police mobiles with him and six personnel in each vehicle. One mobile was in front, the other at the back, and the third on the side (just in case anyone attempted something from the side of the car),” he says. “His vehicle had the Pakistan flag on it, even though he was not a federal minister at the time. My driver tried to overtake the convoy, which was taking up a lot of room on the road, but I told him to let it go.” Both happened to be going to the same destination — a postcolonial club in the city, where the former minister had a permanent room. “‘What’s all this?’ I asked him when we got there, referring to the convoy. ‘Protection,’ he replied.” According to Sadiq, the Sindh government alone has a total of 28,000 vehicles at its disposal.

Road rage in Karachi tends to be directed primarily at young to middle-aged males. Attitudes towards females are different. Women may receive catcalls, but during traffic incidents, including accidents, they are usually accomodated and treated with a degree of respect by the general public. Numerous women residents of Karachi recall encounters on the road in which they were moved by the helpful and considerate attitude of all those present.

On such occasions, Fawad, a private banker, wishes that he too was a woman. Rage may have become an uncontrollable hazard on Karachi’s streets today, but it has always existed. In 2004, when Fawad’s car gently hit a taxi at Do Talwar, his sense of entitlement drove him to punch the other driver, the ring on his finger drawing blood. “I began to panic because it quickly dawned on me that he was built like a rock,” recalls Fawad, who has seen his share of brawls. Fawad’s behaviour towards the taxi driver invited the ire of others in the vicinity, who saw it through the prism of class conflict. A policeman emerged from a check post. A group of Pashtun labourers working at a nearby construction site put down their tools and walked towards him.

“The policeman, probably out fear of what was going to happen to me, grabbed me and the taxi driver and put us both in my car,” recalls Fawad. The labourers surrounded the car and closed in on it while hurling profanities at him. Tensions heightened when one of them shouted “kafir” with a crazed look in his eye. Under the instructions of the officer, Fawad slowly reversed towards the check post and was hustled inside, out of danger’s way. In the end, despite not having a license on him, he got off scot free after his father came and fished him out. The taxi driver, still bleeding, was the loser in this situation.

But Fawad was not as lucky while driving past SZABIST in Old Clifton. After a heated exchange with a student who was driving down the wrong side of the street, Fawad had to quickly apologise when the kid pulled out a Glock pistol and pointed it at his head.

On lawless streets, “might is right prevails,” laments Dr Niaz. “Since the law does not provide citizens with protection, many resort to hiring private security guards, whom they see as the only deterrent to such behaviour,” says Atif.

So what are the solutions? One way to avoid road rage is to stop driving altogether. Another, to somehow ensure that fewer people drive.

Naeem Sadiq contends that road rage can be reduced vastly if the government places more emphasis on public transport. “Karachi is the only city of its size in the entire world that has no reliable mass transit system,” says Ghazi Salahuddin. Sadiq adds, “There is less road rage in countries that have a good quality, state-run system of public transport.” According to him, it makes sense to have fewer vehicles on the road, especially since Pakistan is forced to import fuel as it does not have enough of its own.

One solution, suggests Sadiq, is to have a bus circuit as the sole means of transport in traffic hubs, such as I.I. Chundrigar Road or Zamzama. Commuters could park their cars in designated spaces outside these areas and be transported to their respective destinations by a shuttle service, he says. According to Inspector Idris Bhatti, the Sindh Traffic Police plans on introducing a scheme whereby intercity bus terminals — for coaches such as the Blue Line and Karachi Coach — will be moved outside the city and be accessed via a shuttle service.

Sadiq says that whereas in developed countries traffic caters primarily to the rush hours, or weekend travel, in Pakistan there is a third category of traffic — what he refers to as “slavery traffic.” This involves commuting to accomplish tasks and chores that in other countries can be done over the phone, or via the Internet, such as paying motor vehicle tax, pensions collection and similar work that involves driving to government departments. “Collectively, all this adds up to many trips made by many people,” says Sadiq, describing this as “self-created madness.” If the system can enable citizens to carry out these tasks from home, 20 per cent of the traffic will be reduced straight away. “If lanes are clearly demarcated on roads and lane discipline enforced, an orderly environment can be created,” adds Sadiq.

Responding to the complaint that larger vehicles, particularly SUVs, tend to bully and generally step over smaller ones, DIG Traffic, Minhas argues, “I drive a small car, but I don’t get bullied, because I always drive defensively. It is those who drive small vehicles aggressively that get bullied.” Salahuddin meanwhile maintains, “Just the way not all citizens are equal in our society — so too on the road, not all vehicles are equal.”

The writer is an Assistant Editor at Newsline. (Website: alibhutto.com)