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Road rage rising in New Delhi

As masses of new vehicles join the chaos, the infrastructure can't keep up.

NEW DELHI - On a recent chilly evening, Gaurav Kumar eased his small truck onto a congested road in the Indian capital and accidentally scraped another vehicle in the honking mass of cars, scooters, and motorbikes.

Enraged, the other car's driver blocked Kumar's truck and attacked him. He pulled the 24-year-old deliveryman out and shoved him so hard that his head hit the sidewalk. An hour later, Kumar died at a hospital.

"It was a small scratch. For this he lost his life," Kumar's widow, Prem Latha, said by telephone from the nearby town of Aligarh, where she lives with her 7-week-old daughter.

Once rare in India, such cases of road rage are becoming routine on the streets of New Delhi, according to O.P. Mandal, the police officer investigating the Dec. 7 attack that led to Kumar's death.

"This is what we are seeing every day," Mandal said. "A minor quarrel escalates, people take the law into their hands, and a life is snuffed out."

While Indian police keep no specific numbers on traffic-related assaults, officers interviewed agree that road rage is rising, fueled by the country's economic boom and the masses of vehicles it is adding to the already-crowded roads.

Roughly 10 million cars, buses, trucks, scooters, and motorbikes crowd New Delhi's potholed roads every day, causing long traffic jams, gridlock - and frayed tempers.

The city's roads have not kept up with growth. While the vehicle count has soared 212 percent over the last two decades, the number of miles of road has grown just 17 percent, according to the New Delhi Transport Department.

"People are on the road longer, and everyone is on a short fuse," said Satyendra Garg, the police official in charge of New Delhi traffic. "The result is a situation which begins verbally, then escalates to physical confrontation."

And because vehicles are a powerful symbol of often-newfound wealth, any scratch can feel like an assault on a person's status, he added. "So if someone scrapes their new car, they find it unacceptable and are ready to hit out."

Sociologist Abhilasha Kumari also senses a change in attitude as the country's new economic wealth makes society more materialistic.

"It's as if Delhi's centuries-old culture of graciousness has been wiped off and has been replaced by a frenetic and pushy 'me first' ruthlessness," she said.

Migrants from nearby rural areas, some newly rich from selling their land for real estate development, have also helped change the city's texture from a quiet government town to a commercial hub.

"People are more up-front in their aggressiveness," Kumari said. "They believe if you have the money, you flaunt it, with your big shiny new car, and you assert yourself forcefully on the road."

Almost every day, newspapers carry reports of people being assaulted after getting into traffic disputes.

In one recent incident, a motorist at a crowded toll booth pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot the toll collector if he served another driver who had cut in line.

Driving on New Delhi's roads is a hazardous exercise at best. Cars and buses graze fenders with farm tractors, motorbikes, and the occasional ox-driven cart.

At red lights, scooters zigzag among cars trying to get to the front. Drivers of small cars ignore lane lines and wedge their vehicles into any free space. Pedestrians, beggars, and hawkers weave around the vehicles. It's a honking, rugby-like scrum that revs up to a slow crawl when the light turns green.

Maxwell Pereira, a retired police officer, worries that as the situation on the roads deteriorates, even normally levelheaded drivers will resort to road rage.

"There's no saying whom it will strike next," he said. "Even the most sober and most calm person will lose his cool."