Stayin’ Alive: Driving in India

First a little quiz to see what you know about driving in India.

1. How many vehicles can fit abreast on a two lane road?

A) Two cars
B) Six motorcycles
C) Three cars and two motorcycles
D) One car and four tuk-tuks
E) Two cars, two tuk-tuks and a scooter
F) A tanker truck, a bus, and three motorcycles

Answer: All of the above, except A) is only correct if one lane has been closed for construction.

2. What are you saying when you honk your horn?

A) Notice that I am trying /about to pass you.
B) Be aware I’m coming around a blind corner in your lane.
C) I anticipate you are about to make a move that may put you into the space I intend to occupy in the near future and I suggest you reconsider.
D) There is not quite enough room for my car to fit through at high speed, so I’d appreciate you making a very small adjustment to your position.
E) I acknowledge the receipt of your communication (two short beeps)
F) I have not tootled my horn for several minutes and I need to check if it is still functional.

Answer: All of the above.

I was expecting the apparent chaos of driving in India, the cacophony of horns, the disregard for rules of the road and “orderly” movement. I’d heard about it and seen it in movies. Yet the impact of actually being in it was shocking at first. Lane markings were only the most casual suggestions, and cars were as likely to be straddling the middle line, or on the “wrong” side of it, than where I expected them to be.

After a while, though, I could see it was a dance. There was a choreography, and people know the moves that optimize road usage. Like the martial art performance I saw in Periyar, the players could almost touch, yet not collide. Although the rules may not have been the ones written in the statutes, drivers knew what to do. As our driver, Albin, explained, “There is so much traffic that if we followed the rules, we would never get anywhere.”

What surprised me more was how new the cars were. I didn’t see any “beaters,” the old, well-used vehicles that cost more to run than to buy. Here, only the rich have cars. There are many buses and tuk-tuks, and they are cheap to hire. Motorcycles and scooters are the preferred personal vehicles, and women in saris ride side-saddle on the back. It is not uncommon to see younger women driving their own. With traffic and the difficulty and cost of parking, cars are a true luxury rather than the necessity we North Americans think they are.

Roads vary. Kerala is a relatively rich state in India, but mountain roads have been devastated by landslides and lower roads by floods caused by the monsoons, the worst in a hundred years, last fall. It will take years to repair them all. Some roads would be considered excellent in my home province; others had me amazed that they were passable at all.

Although horns are used constantly, the meaning is never the most common North American message: “You idiot, what a stupid move.” Twice in the last week Albin shook his head and tsk-tsked, and once he even commented, “stopping like that with no signal.” But in no case did he use his horn to convey disapproval to the other driver. Despite the speed, congestion and ignoring of rules of the road, Indian drivers display a high degree of tolerance, although Albin claims they are much less patient than they used to be.

They are also helpful and cooperative. They readily back up, merge, move over, and give directions as to whether a vehicle will pass by them without contact. Truck and bus drivers, after you have honked to indicate you wish to pass, will use hand signals to guide you: yes, no, and my favourite, a hand wobble that seems to mean “risky but possible- your decision.” Pedestrians will assist a driver to back through a path I wouldn’t attempt in a forward direction, and will direct traffic when things get tangled. Perhaps it is an understanding that anger and frustration are not useful, and without cooperation the traffic will not move.

I am impressed by the skill level of Indian drivers in general. I don’t gasp when I see two vehicles abreast approaching at high speed— I have faith that the vehicle in our lane will have correctly judged the time he needs to get back onto his side of the road, or at least near enough to it to avoid a collision.

I think faith plays a role on Indian roads in more than just a belief in the other drivers’ skill. Perhaps some is Hindu fatalism; if it is your time, it is your time, and perhaps your next incarnation will be better. But trucks, buses and tuk-tuks are as likely in Kerala to display Christian religious icons and names as Hindu ones. I even saw one “Bishmillah” across the windshield of a truck. Faith is a strong part of the culture and I suppose that extends to the roads.

I have found a limit to my courage here— I would not consider driving myself in India. But as a passenger, I am enjoying these brave travels.

  • 3 thoughts on “Stayin’ Alive: Driving in India

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