Friday, June 04, 2010

The long and winding road

Augustine Painter, a driver of a Kerala State Road Transport Corporation talks about how he deals with unruly passengers, chaotic traffic, sleepiness at night, and body pains

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, Augustine Painter, a driver of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation, was travelling on a road in the hilly district of Kumily. Suddenly he saw a 12-foot long King Cobra crossing the road. Augustine braked. On the other side, a lorry also halted. The headlights of both the vehicles confused the cobra. It raised its hood and looked to the left and the right.

Soon, there was a long line of vehicles on either side. More lights were aimed at the cobra, but the reptile did not move. Nobody knew what to do. Twenty minutes went past. Augustine then realised that the headlights was causing distress to the snake.

“I told the drivers to switch off all the lights,” says Augustine. When darkness appeared, the cobra relaxed and slithered off.

This is one of the many incidents that Augustine has experienced in his long years at the Ernakulam bus depot. The driver usually does the Ernakulam-Thiruvananthapuram route. Other assignments include trips to Coimbatore, Kanyakumari, and to hilly towns like Munnar and Marayoor.

“Driving is a strenuous job,” he says. In the high-altitude areas, because of the strain of handling the steering wheel, most of the drivers suffer from shoulder pains. The regular pressing down of the clutch results in an ache in the left feet and leg, while the incessant shifting of the gears leads to a pain in the left hand.

A major percentage of the drivers also suffer from acidity in the stomach. They rarely eat on time and depend on hotel food.

“We have to give preference to the passengers,” says Augustine. “We cannot stop the bus because we are feeling hungry and have our meal. Instead, we carry on till we reach the terminus. We are professionals and try to do our best.”

To do their best, the drivers need a high level of concentration. “I am responsible for the safety of the passengers, as well as my own,” he says. “Therefore, I am always alert.”

But despite his many years of experience, between 2.30 and 3.30 a.m., his eyes tend to blink. “That is the time when the need for sleep is the highest,” he says. “Most of the accidents take place during this hour.”

If Augustine feels very drowsy, he stops the bus, washes his face in cold water, and walks about for a few minutes. He says that a lapse of awareness by even one-hundredth of a second can lead to a major accident.

Asked about the safe ways to drive, Augustine says, “If I am taking a curve, I will always assume that there is a vehicle coming from the other side.” He avoids rash driving and always keeps a sharp eye on pedestrians who will suddenly dart from the sides.

Incidentally, there are specific sections on particular roads where there is a high possibility of a collision.

“Suppose I am travelling to Tripunithara, the moment I go over the bridge at Champakara I become very alert,” says Augustine. “There are vehicles coming from all sides, including the by-lanes. Fisherwomen are scurrying across the road, as well as bicycle riders and auto-rickshaws. Nobody follows the traffic rules. So I keep my foot on the brake all the time.”

Unscientifically constructed medians also cause accidents. “Most of the time, there are no reflectors at both ends of the median,” he says. “Sometimes when there is a vehicle coming from the opposite side with high-beam headlights, there is a strong possibility that we might not see the median.”

Drunk driving is another problem. When tourists are travelling in a bus, they will share alcoholic beverages with the driver. “Most drivers are hard drinkers,” says Augustine.

“They suffer from a hangover and get less sleep when they are working. Then the tourists will suddenly demand that they reach another place quickly. All these factors lead to accidents.”

In his bus, Augustine frequently meets inebriated passengers. “Most of them feel they can behave any way they want because the bus is government property,” says Augustine. “They are rude and constantly ask me to make unscheduled stops. When I refuse they get very angry and hurl abuses.”

But there are good passengers also. He remembers a 20-year-old Australian woman who was travelling with a group of friends to Munnar. At the end of the trip, she placed a blue cap on his head and said, “You drove very well. Thank you very much.”

Augustine is a good driver. In more than 30 years of driving both private and government vehicles, he has not had a single mishap. “All thanks are due to God,” he says.

When the veteran driver goes back home, to Edapally, after a double shift of 12 hours, he has a bath, eats a meal cooked by his wife, Mabele, and goes for a long, deep sleep.

The next day, of course, the red transport bus awaits Augustine…. for yet another journey.

Private Experience

Driver Farook Sheikh arrives at Kochi at 7 a.m. on a Shama Travels Volvo semi-sleeper, following a 550 km run from Bangalore.

He has a bath, takes breakfast, and opens up the luggage hold of the bus. He spreads a mat and lies down there. The bus is parked on the pavement on Mahatma Gandhi Road. Farook sleeps till 6.30 p.m.

“I am so deep in sleep that I don’t hear the traffic sounds at all,” he says.

Farook has dinner at 8.30 p.m. and sets out once again. “I work for six days and get six days off,” says the Bangalore-based driver.

Farook has been driving long distance buses for the past 20 years. “I am always aware that the lives of the passengers are in my hands,” he says. “I drive carefully and take no risks.”

Unlike KSRTC drivers, he does not suffer from body pains or aches in the leg. “The Volvo has power steering and clutch systems,” he says, with a smile. “Driving is smooth.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)


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