“My friend lost his life ten years ago due to bike racing on the roads in Chennai. Another friend suffered multiple fractures. I do not condone bike racing ever. It is the most reckless thing to do when you are young,” says Vishnu*, who once used to race bikes on the roads in Chennai but has since given up the pursuit.
Street racing is especially of concern in a city like Chennai as it has had the highest number of road accidents in India among all the metros, as per 2021 NCRB records. A major cause of road accidents is overspeeding, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
But why do people indulge in such unsafe acts, sabotaging their own safety, and that of others on the roads in the city?
Read more: Why does Chennai see so many road accidents?
Who races bikes in Chennai and where?
“If a bike rider is going at a speed of 30 to 40 kmph, they can easily apply brakes. But when they ride at very high speeds, it is difficult to apply the brakes. This increases the possibility of accidents,” says Sub-Inspector (SI) Chellappan, posted at the Pondy Bazaar police station. “If the perpetrators are wheeling their bikes, then other bike riders around them may become startled and lose their balance while driving, which could also lead to accidents.”
Last December, the city police nabbed five people, who raced on their bikes, driving at a speed of 100 kmph.
“It is not that more bike racing instances are happening today. But currently, there is more awareness about these road violations,” says the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Traffic (South), R Sakthivel, when asked whether the instances of riders racing bikes have increased in recent times.
In 2022, 14 people were caught for bike racing in South Chennai, as per the city police records. There are not a lot of significant cases in other parts of Chennai, according to the traffic police in the city. People who hail from the north or central parts of the city also go to the southern side and race.
“Earlier, racing cases were filed in Trunk Road near Poonamallee, 200-feet Redhill Road and Thoraipakkam. But the riders decide on the road based on which areas are free to race,” says SI Chellappan.
“Those who indulge in racing are usually school or college dropouts. Last year, there were four juveniles among the 14 accused,” says the SI. “Some of their parents were construction workers or other daily wage workers. The perpetrators generally blackmail their parents into buying such bikes, in some cases with threats of suicide. So, the parents borrow money and buy them the bikes, afraid that they may lose their child.”
“In another case, the accused’s father was a mechanic. This helped him access a high-end bike that was used in racing,” says DC Sakthivel.
“The perpetrators post about bike racing or other unsafe acts on social media platforms, especially Instagram. The police keep an eye on such posts to nab them,” says SI Chellappan on how the police nab people who race bikes on Chennai streets.
“We have automatic number-plate recognition (ANPR) cameras in the city which has also helped us catch the people bike-racing on the roads,” says the DC.
SI Chellappan also points out another issue. The bike riders who race on roads also have pillion riders along with them in many instances. “So, the pillion riders can also get injured or may lose their lives because of such acts.”
What spurs acts of bike racing in Chennai?
“It is the thrill of coming close to death, but not dying. That used to be addictive,” says Vishnu*. “The adrenaline rush used to be unparalleled. Now, I realise how futile and risky it was.”
“The young age of the perpetrators [around 18 to 22 years] is also a factor. They might not know the repercussions of such unsafe acts,” says SI Chellappan.
“This is the age group where many youngsters may exhibit high-risk behaviour, like racing, drug abuse, violence and unprotected sex, unless there is a family and community support system. This leads them to do dangerous acts that can cause harm to themselves and others,” says Rosemary Kurian, an educational psychologist and the Director of Lyminality, a private enterprise that provides mental health modules. “This is also the time when they go through tremendous change physically, socially and cognitively. They are neither children nor adults, and are trying to form their identities.”
Vishnu also talks about the trend of placing bets that spur bike racing. “For instance, the winner could get some money or get to keep the bikes of others as a reward. This acts as motivation.”
But many cases of bike racing dealt with by the city’s traffic did not involve betting. “In most of the cases what led to the race was the mindset to show off or have an adventure.”
“With the launch of high torque and greater CC motorcycles, everyone wants to show off their speeding skills,” says Madhava Prasad, founder of RIDE, a Chennai-based motorcycle tour organiser.
“Many people also generally lack the understanding of the consequences of riding at 50 kmph in city limits can do, let alone zipping at 100 kmph. Here, easy access to high-end bikes also becomes an issue. There is also a stereotype that young men express their machoism by riding expensive bikes at high speeds,” says Sumana Narayanan, Senior Researcher at Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG) and road safety expert. “The Regional Transport Offices does not test your understanding of safety and road rules. A driving license is not enough to indicate a person is aware of traffic rules and driving along a pattern of the number 8 does not teach you road rules.”
How are police spreading awareness against bike racing on Chennai roads?
“They [people who get caught bike-racing] are charged under sections 279 and 308 in the Indian Penal Code; 184, 188 and 189 in The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, among others. Sometimes, they are released on conditional bail. We give them awareness then,” explains the SI.
The police call the parents of the perpetrators and advise them that these acts are unsafe and can become fatal for the guilty, apart from other people on the roads.
“The judges also send them to government hospitals in Chennai to work as ward boys for around 10 days. They have to tend to accident cases that come to the hospitals,” says SI Chellappan, adding that they start realising their mistakes then. “Other times, the guilty are asked to assist traffic police constables who regulate traffic in the city. This also opens the eyes of the youngsters who used to bike race. They learn the difficulties of traffic regulation.”
Almost all the perpetrators have changed their ways with these interventions and awareness initiatives, claim the traffic police.
SI Chellappan also suggests that college students should be given awareness in educational institutions about the consequences of unsafe acts like bike racing.
Bring systemic change to prevent bike racing
“We need a reform of the driving licensing system. I learnt to drive from my grandfather and mother who followed every traffic rule under the sun. The current test, for instance, does not ask people to parallel park. The test these days include driving for 100 metres and changing the gear on a road that has no real traffic,” says Sumana, adding that India has The Rules of the Road Regulations, 1989 that people must follow. “We need a driving manual too. Other countries have such manuals that people have to study and give a test to get a license. In those countries, a driving license is a privilege and not a right.”
Sumana also suggests that the speed limits of city roads must be set using standard parameters and guidelines. Along with that, signboards that show speed limits must be visibly positioned on the roads.
Rosemary talks about educational interventions to behaviourally curb risk-taking tendencies like bike racing in Chennai. “We need educational interventions at three levels- for individuals; for family members on how they can support their children with care and control; and community-level interventions where the youth can learn, like volunteering at hospitals. But these interventions need not come after they take up activities like bike racing. We can sensitise them earlier, building resilience and better decision-making skills.”
Riding responsibly is the need of the hour
To make people ride with responsibility, yet experience the joy of riding a motorbike, Madhava Prasad gives some thumb rules.
- Join a motorcycle club in Chennai that conducts regular rides to destinations in the city. This way, you can meet like-minded people and build a good biking brotherhood. Thus, you can enjoy the freedom of riding responsibly and adhering to traffic rules [as a group].
- Racing must be done only on tracks meant for them with the necessary protection and not on city streets.
- The best way to enjoy riding a bike is to let it cruise on cruise control. This allows you to stay under the speed limit [there won’t be the need for acceleration] and lets one enjoy the feeling of having the wind in their face.
Bike racing is one of many issues that contributes to the many road accidents in Chennai. It is a welcome move that the Chennai police are cracking down on these acts in the city.
But, as always, prevention is better than cure. Steps must be taken to rein in such unsafe behaviours and create avenues for intervention by families, local communities and educational institutions to prevent such unsafe acts and nip tendencies leading to such recklessness in the bud. Mass campaigns and popular media can also play an effective role and come to the aid of the traffic police in reducing mishaps caused by the racing of bikes on Chennai’s streets.
*name changed on request