The sudden flash lit Nasir Hameed’s white City as he speedily drove on The Mall, one of the busiest roads in Lahore. It would take another few days before the Rs500 “Traffic light violation” ticket reached his home, explaining what had actually happened.
Hameed, 40, was caught on one of the traffic cameras, a latest photo enforcement tool that took photos of his car as he rapidly ran a red-light signal. He is not the only one. According to a Punjab Safe City Authority (PSCA) spokesperson, approximately 5,000 e-challans are being issued in Lahore on a daily basis, and only a week has passed since the new system became effective.
Critics of photo enforcement are of the view that even though the drivers, under the new system, can challenge their e-challans, it is essentially an invasion of public privacy, apart from being just another money-making strategy. “To me, this e-ticketing system is just a new-fangled way they’ve come up with to collect money from anyone who has a car,” says the visibly upset Hameed.
Contrary to the fine rate lists making rounds all over the social media, the challan rates have not been increased, according to Tauseef Sabih Gondal, a PSCA official, who adds that it is just the implementation of the law that has become more stringent.
The integrated traffic management — popularly known as the e-challan system — has not just appeared out of the blue. Gondal says the process began a couple of years ago when the PSCA started putting up Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras all across the city, in order to keep an eye on traffic in general. “The operating system of these highly sensitive cameras is capable of storing information about individual traffic violations and cumulative information about cars that are frequently involved in such violations,” he says.
Gondal further says that frequent traffic violations or non-payment of the fine may result in confiscation of the relevant vehicle by the authorities.
A system that can only read standardised license plates issued with numbers registered with the Excise and Taxation (E&T) Department, cannot be completely infallible. Due to inherent irregularities in the E&T database and the resultant issuance of faulty number plates, the efficacy of this system seems questionable. According to Gondal, though, this problem has, to some extent, been taken care of: “The PSCA realised this possibility a couple of years back and to counter that we took the E&T department on board, in order to develop a better system and a reliable registration system of licence plates.
“I can say this with complete certainty that almost 95 per cent of the license plates seen in the city as of this moment, are completely authentic.”
The results of the new e-challan system, have been nothing short of tremendous, as per Gondal, since within just a few days, a massive number of violations have been recorded on The Mall — and this is just the red signal violation alone.
“We have already started seeing change in people’s attitudes on the roads,” says a traffic warden, Saleem Butt.
Supporters of photo enforcement say that the use of traffic cameras curbs violations and decreases the overall number of fatal accidents. “I can see a significant decline in red-light violation, not only at intersections with cameras but also at other points,” Butt adds.
E-ticketing is applicable on cars from all over the Punjab, says another PSCA official, Hafiz Tayyab. “On the orders of the Lahore High Court, all the cars, registered with the E&T department of Punjab, caught violating red signals in Lahore, will be fined and an e-challan will be sent to their registered addresses.”
So what happens if there is some ambiguity in the photos taken by these cameras, as can very well be the case with a newly implemented e-system? Tayyab says there isn’t a chance: “The cameras take photos from four different angles, and we manually check the photos to verify the license plates before sending out e-challans, in order to avoid any error.”
The red-signal violation in Lahore is now completely being handled by the ANPR cameras. As Gondal says, the main purpose of the whole exercise is to inculcate sufficient and appropriate “civic sense” in the public. “We just want people to abide by traffic rules so that with time, accidents can be completely avoided on roads.”
When asked about the huge presence of traffic wardens on The Mall, along with the conspicuously harsh implementation of traffic violation rules by the said wardens, the official asserts, “We’re basically focusing on turning The Mall into a model road for everyone, before moving on to the other areas of Lahore.”
A few things might seem a bit confusing to the common man as it seems that traffic violation is being handled by two different authorities in Lahore at the moment. The PSCA, in collaboration with the City Traffic Police (CTP), is handling the red signal violation, whereas all the other violations are still being handled by the CTP.
According to a CTP official, the manual challan is here to stay: “It will take a lot of time and effort to completely rely on these cameras for all kinds of violations. Manual challans cannot be completely wiped out; they will stick around in some form.”
However, that is not what Gondal has to say on the matter. “You may see traffic wardens giving out manual challans but eventually, everything will be handled by the ANPR cameras.”
On the surface, the system does seem beneficial for the provincial capital which, according to a number of researches, has witnessed the largest number of fatal accidents in the country, most of them caused by overspeeding. But, as with anything new in the country, the e-challan system also seems to be facing some resistance from the general public — mainly the motorcyclists.
Over the last few days, you must have come across scenes on your television screens involving one angry motorcyclist or the other, engaged in a heated argument with some traffic warden; you may also have heard the word “helmet” mentioned in many a conversation. According to some motorcyclists, they are being charged with exorbitant fines for not wearing helmets when the amount mentioned in the Motor Vehicles Ordinance and Rules Section 116-A for such a violation is a mere Rs200. “The wardens are only charging Rs200 to the motorcyclists for not wearing helmets. Anything beyond that is just an ‘add-on’ for all the other violations that they are accused of,” explains the CTP official when asked about banners that were displayed on The Mall a couple of weeks back depicting a fine of Rs1,000 for not wearing a helmet. It remains unclear as to what those other violations, or add-ons, entail.
A general mistrust about the newly implemented e-system does exist in general public. According to a Careem driver in Lahore, “Helmets, in their present form, are a serious hazard as they restrict the side view of motorcyclists, hence having a huge impact on their road sense.”
He says that helmets should ideally be redesigned so that the side view isn’t restricted and if that is not possible, then a fine should be imposed on motor cycles without side view mirrors.
There could be some truth to the popular impression that the new e-ticketing system may apparently bring in a lot of money to the concerned authorities but according to Gondal, revenue is not the point. “I know citizens sometimes don’t trust us and reasons behind our actions. But do trust us when we say we don’t want your money; we just want you to stay safe and to stop violating traffic rules!”