Should I have seen the sign?

Shubhabrata Marmar Updated: July 21, 2014, 05:40 PM IST

This is a very confusing time for me. Because I am in the midst of an argument with a traffic policeman. Well, debate, really - there's no anger in this. The issue is that I think I am right and he thinks he is. The problem is if I am right, then it means there are traffic policemen out there, tasked with keeping us safe and orderly, who don't understand the rulebook they're expected to implement.

Exhibit A

I'm in college learning transportation planning. I read about what I remember as a "discretionary right turn" at a signalised intersection. Which, in sum, means that if the right turning traffic on a particular arm of the intersection is really low, then a transportation designer can permit a non-signalled discretionary right turn. Which means, you as a rider or driver can come to a stop in the right turning lane with indicators blinking and complete the right turn when you see space in traffic. The onus of safety is on you to choose the right gap. In orderly countries this works - see Exhibit B

Exhibit B

I'm in Austria in a Porsche Boxster waiting for the light to go green so I can turn left (this is Europe so we're driving on the 'wrong' side of the road) across traffic on to an Autobahn entry ramp. After 10 minutes, I walk to the ultra-patient guy in the Mercedes SUV behind me - he's waited the whole time without a honk - to ask for suggestions. He explains with a smile, the left turn isn't signalled but also not prohibited. Which means I've to look for a nice gap and then complete the turn at my discretion.

What happened

The fuel station nearest to my house is on the other side of the road next to a T-junction. To put in cardinal direction terms, I come from the south and can go east or west. North lies the wall of the IIT Mumbai campus. To go to the fuel station, I've to head west, then make a U-turn at the next set of lights. To continue to work requires a U-turn again at the same T-junction, this time I approach from the west, turn 180 degrees and continue west.

The intersection is recent - it's a project The World Bank funded and then in a huff, abandoned - and therefore incomplete in many ways. On the other hand, there are excellent sight lines and clearly visible traffic lights. And usually, a handful of traffic policemen on the west arm as you head out of the intersection.

Rush Hour 2

On this day, I filled up the Activa 125, came to a complete halt on the extreme right of the top lane with the indicator going and my hand out. I waited for a complete break in traffic and the policemen watched me come to a stop as well as make the U-turn. Then they pulled me over and said I'd made an illegal U-turn. Whereas I believe that I made a legally permitted U-turn because the intersection itself has no signs saying that a U-turn is not permitted. The debate is whether I am right or the policeman is. It isn't a matter of the Rs 100 applicable as fine in this case.
So I came to office and did some digging. There are two possible sections under which the policeman can fine me. I could be accused of disobeying a traffic signal which is section 239 of the Maharashtra Motor Vehicle Rules (MMVR), section 22(b) of the Rules Of Road Regulations (RRR) and Section 177 Motor Vehicles Act (MVA). Or of taking a U-turn during prohibited hours (section 12, RRR and section 177 MVA).

The rules that apply

Section 12 RRR says, I quote -

"Taking 'U' turn - No driver shall take a 'U' turn where 'U' turn is specially prohibited and on a busy traffic road. If a 'U' turn is allowed, the driver shall show signal by hand as for a right turn, watch in the rear view mirror and turn when safe to do so."

Section 177 MVA is hard to quote because it is very long text. But it doesn't really matter here because it focusses mostly on the fine amounts for any offence, rather than the legality of the action.
I'm not sure what "specially prohibited" means but as I said, there aren't any 'U-turn prohibited' signs at this intersection. And I remember studying that all traffic restrictions must be explicitly signposted so that there is clarity. The policeman says, "When there is no right turn then how can a U-turn here be legal." Which is nonsense because the right turn isn't available unless you plan to drive through the IIT Mumbai wall. And besides, none of the Traffic Police Manuals I have seen so far say that at T-junctions, right turns and U-turns will be treated as one and the same.
Section 22(b) of the RRR, meanwhile, says that the driver (and rider by implication) must follow every direction on the road - whether by signal, police  officer (or authorised person in charge at the time) - "any direction applicable to him and indicated on or by notice traffic sign or signal fixed, or operated by authority" and "any direction indicated by automatic signalling devices fixed at road intersections."

Section 239 of the MMVR, however, is proving to be a tough cookie because the MMVR doesn't seem to appear online. All the Maharashtra police and Transport Commission websites have the RRR, MVA and CMVR (which ends at section 217) but the MMVR isn't available. Some websites have the entire text without formatting (as in one epic, forbidding paragraph) which cannot make accessing the information inside easy to find. The references to the section come in regards to disobeying a traffic signal and disobeying a manual traffic signal.

The debate

As far as I can tell, I didn't contravene any of the laws applicable here. I made a perfectly safe U-turn that was permitted. If it wasn't, the traffic police is duty-bound to put up a sign explicitly saying so. More importantly, I looked up "right turn on red" abroad and found similar discretionary right and U-turn clauses peppering legislation across the world. Left turn on red, similarly is common with the countries that drive on the "wrong" side of the road.
Second, the cops did actually see me intending to make the U-turn and I waited just over 113 seconds before actually making the U-turn when the traffic stopped in all directions for the pedestrians' green lights. There weren't any pedestrians so I completed my turn without obstructing anyone. But, why didn't the policemen just signal to me that I was required to carry on and not make the ostensibly illegal U-turn? Is it because not completing this U-turn is a loss of between Rs 100 and Rs 300 in revenue to the police department under section 177 of the Motor Vehicles Act?

The verdict

There isn't one. I need your help to settle this. To the policeman's credit, he has not challan-ed me yet saying, "If you're right, bring some documentation - the least we can do is learn something." Which is admirable until you consider what that means - there are policemen out there enforcing laws that they clearly do not know or understand. And that revenue collection has superseded the maintenance of traffic laws and order in the real world.

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