The 5.30AM Test

Last Saturday, I was walking from The Claridges to Lodi Gardens in Delhi, at the start of an early morning run. I reached a signal. It was red. Four cars were waiting at the signal, behind the white line. I stopped, not sure when they would break the red. They however kept still. It suddenly dawned on me that they were actually going to wait till the light turned green. Still a little unsure, I finally crossed the road and then waited at the other end to see what would happen. The cars waited for another 20 odd seconds for the signal to turn green and then drove off.

There is no signal or area or place in Mumbai where at 5.30 in the morning, any car would stop at any red light. There is no person I know, including myself, who would stop at 5.30 in the morning at a red signal. No place, no person.

And this was Delhi. A city of supposed brutes and ill-mannered people, who apparently have no concept of how to drive, who hog the roads and at the slightest provocation kill each other in fits of road rage.

I was curious. I wondered whether there were stealth cameras at that signal that the drivers were afraid of, like the ones that have been put up on the road to the new T3 terminal. Or as another Mumbai friend of mine remarked, since this is the toniest part of Delhi where the high and mighty live, perhaps people were following rules out of fear of being caught.

I called a local Delhi friend of mine to understand. While he was not surprised that people had waited at a red signal despite the absence of cameras, he was also not particularly impressed. According to him, people in Delhi in the early mornings do stop at red signals perhaps half the times, but usually as part of a herd mentality…if one person stops, everyone will stop, unlike in Mumbai, where all those behind will start honking incessantly and force the person who has stopped to break the red and move on.

The point however is that half the people do actually think of stopping that early in the morning. In a good number of countries, it is a blanket rule that is followed blindly…you have to stop at a red light irrespective of the time of day.

The next morning I was back in Mumbai and we went bicycling on the BPT road. Not a single car cared about the signals. At around 8.15 AM, I drove to Santacruz (E). I stopped at all the red lights and twice got into fights with those behind me, who couldn’t imagine what kind of idiot was blocking their “right of way”. I then took the Sealink to South Mumbai. On Worli Seaface, at around 9.30 AM, all the cars were stopping at all the short and long signals. This was also true all the way past Haji Ali and Peddar Road up to the Chowpatty junction. But once I reached the Lamington road junction, it was a free for all at all the traffic junctions.

Is it then about upbringing and culture? Are those living in the Western part of South Mumbai more cultured and therefore more prone to following rules? Do those living in South Delhi perhaps have more finesse? And is the rest of Mumbai (and the country), just too uncouth and rude and thus refuses to follow rules?

Will you ever stop at 5.30 AM in Mumbai at a red light?

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