No country has taken to the cell-phone the way India has. And it would be no exaggeration to say that Chennai is a true representative of that trend. It has been a great convenience leading to its rapidly penetrating all strata of society. But at the same time, it has proved to be one of the major causes of road accidents. The temptation to answer a call, no matter in what situation a person is, appears to be irresistible, resulting in mishaps which have on several occasions caused avoidable casualties.

This report is, of course, prompted by the recent toppling over of a bus as it rounded a curve on the Gemini Flyover. While the exact cause of the accident is yet to be established, rumours are flying thick and fast that the driver had a cell-phone in one hand while trying to steer the bus round a sharp curve at high speed. This may not be true, but the likelihood is quite high, given the past record of several accidents in the city. It is time to take stock of what damage irresponsible usage of the cell-phone can cause and see what can be done to avert such tragic happenings in the future.

The rules are all in place. The Madras Motor Vehicles Act, Rule 250A, clearly states that usage of cell-phones while driving is a cognisable offence that can be penalised by the RTO. The Motor Vehicles Amendment Act of 2007, enacted by Parliament, enhanced the fine for usage of cell-phone while driving to Rs 500 for a first-time offence. Subsequent offences were to be fined at rates varying from Rs 2000 to Rs 5000. Yet, there appears to be no abatement in the usage of phones while on the go.

What is interesting is that this is done by users across the whole cross-section of society. Car drivers are perhaps the most visible offenders as are probably two-wheeler users. The imbalance caused to cycles and motor-cycles when the user is trying to cradle a phone and talk into it is a very common reason for accidents. It is also very often seen that those driving two-wheelers hide their phones inside their helmets and continue talking into it. The most recent trend is the use of headphones. There is a view that this is safe enough. But what is overlooked is that the volume of sound is often set very high and this drowns out the warning signals that are coming from surrounding vehicles. This is also the reason why pedestrians overlook speeding vehicles and walk right into them.

The police have been doing what they can to curb the menace. Campaigns have been conducted. Counselling sessions at street corners after apprehending a certain number of defaulters is a common sight across the city. But none of these has had the desired effect. There appears to be a general feeling among individuals that such accidents happen to other people only. What is overlooked is that by diverting attention, injuries or even death can be caused to innocent bystanders for no fault of theirs.

Clearly, need for some introspection and self-discipline is indicated, something for which we are not known as a nation. At the same time, the police need to be more active in bringing to book offenders and not letting them off with a light penalty or warning. Given the risks involved, it may be best to resort to something drastic such as the cancelling of driving licences. But in the end, it is voluntary adherence to the rule that is ideal. And that is up to us, the people.