LAHORE // On the cramped streets of Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city, Range Rovers and sleek Mercedes jostle for space with buffalo-drawn carts, motorcyclists and beat-up old taxis. There has never been any set rules. Drivers rarely stop at traffic lights, honk their horns persistently and refuse to make way for ambulances or police cars. Not surprisingly, Pakistan's traffic accident rate is appalling. Over the past nine years, 90,000 road accidents have killed 45,000 people, more than half of those in Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital.
After seven years on the job, Babar Hussain, 27, a traffic warden in Lahore, was beginning to despair there would ever be a turn around in driving habits in his city. That was until he was asked to join the country's first radio station dedicated to providing drivers not only with traffic news, but basic driving tips and rules. "When you see a police vehicle racing down a road with all its sirens blaring, please get out of the way by moving your car to the right or the left," Mr Hussain said, speaking into a microphone at the station's headquarters.
"The police are probably chasing a criminal, and so it's in your interest to get out of the way." As he wraps up his segment of the show, he is replaced with the lyrics of the popular Pakistani musician, Atif Aslam. "For the first time in my life, I am beginning to have hope for Lahore's traffic system. Now I believe we will be able to fix it," he said. The idea for the programme came from a wealthy expatriate who approached the deputy inspector general of traffic in Punjab saying he wanted to invest to help improve driving habits. Police officers jumped at the opportunity.
"We thought it was a brilliant way to finally teach people in Lahore how to drive," said Ghayyar Ali Khan, a traffic warden who has been involved with the station since its inception six months ago. Mr Khan, 23, became a warden three years ago. "I was inspired to apply for this job because I thought being in the police would give me a certain degree of respect and social stature," he said. "But after I was sent into the field, I was shocked to realise how poor the driving ethics of the public were."
Mr Khan recalls how in his first month on the job he confronted a driver who was trying to drive through a red light. "He was slowly trying to edge his car forward when the signal was red. I motioned to him to stay put but just as I was walking towards him, he sped away," he said. Mr Khan radioed the licence plate number to his colleagues, but a lack of surveillance equipment prevented them from tracking the car.
"We are grossly ill equipped," said Mr Khan. "While we're trying to improve our standards, I think teaching the public traffic rules will be more beneficial." The radio station, called rasta radio (rasta means road or path in Urdu) is a non-profit venture and is the only radio channel in the country completely staffed by traffic wardens. Dressed in pale blue uniforms with caps bearing the insignia of traffic wardens, the young men and women work shifts at the station.
Babar Dogar, 25, is one of 20 radio jockeys. In a cupboard sized room, with a table holding broadcasting equipment taking up most of the space, Mr Dogar spends eight hours a day in front of a microphone. He has only been on air for a few days but is extremely excited about his new career prospects. "I play songs, take live calls and crack jokes on air and all through my transmission, I try to educate listeners about basic traffic rules," he said.
Mr Dogar said the radio station is the only opportunity wardens have to teach the public how to drive safely on the roads. "We try and inform motorcyclists about the importance of wearing helmets and every half an hour or so, we mention the importance of wearing seat belts while driving," said Iftikhar Jaffrey, a police inspector and in charge of the radio station. He also explained how the station was trying to get women involved to educate their husbands, sons and fathers about good driving practices.
"During our transmissions, we reach out to women and ask them to make sure their husbands are wearing seat belts or are stopping at red lights and are avoiding using mobile phones while driving," he said. "If you can convince the woman, she'll badger her husband or father until he gives in." Since Pakistan's literacy rate is below 40 per cent, the radio also presents a better alternative than printing educational pamphlets.
But even if the radio station does reach drivers, there are other challenges for the police in bringing down road fatalities. "You'll be surprised to know that more than 50 per cent of the people who are driving cars don't have licences," said Suhail Iftikhar, who runs a driving school in Lahore. "Many haven't even gone to driving schools and have just learnt how to drive by sitting behind the wheel one day and placing the key in the ignition."
* The National