Driving in India

[pullquote align=”left”]Any westerner who has driven a car, rickshaw, van, or motorcycle in India will tell you it’s an experience that has to be lived to be believed. [/pullquote]Whilst I am not yet brave enough to drive a car in India, I am a regular passenger on many car trips, varying in length from 200 metres to hundreds of kilometres.  However, I have observed that the rules of the road do not vary, no matter how far you are going. Whilst I am sure this list will be added to and amended over time, the “rules” I have observed thus far include the following:

1. Right of way is always given to Cows.

Cows are sacred animals in India, and at all times, they have right of way on the roads. This means if they choose to stop and have a nap in the middle of the road, then so be it. They cannot be physically moved or disturbed against their will.

On my first car trip in India from the airport to home, we traveled on an expressway with a speed limit of 100 kmh. On several occasions, my driver had to slow down and dodge a cow that had chosen to casually cross the expressway at that particular time. The cows remained safe, and the journey continued without anyone batting an eyelid.

2. Lanes are just markings on the road with no specific purpose

Many larger roads have designated lanes to manage the flow of traffic, or so the theory goes. I In India,however, lanes have no use because the traffic manages itself. Cars move across the whole road and are guided by the toots from other car horns (see Rule 4). With that system in place, there is no need for another.

3. The speed limit is never to be reached

Speed limits do exist on Indian roads, but even on the expressway, I have yet to see anyone come close to them. With all the animals (see Rule 1) and other drivers crossing lanes (see Rule 2), it is virtually impossible to travel at the speed limit without risking serious damage. After all, at 100kmh, there is no way you could miss the cyclist who is on his mobile phone and hasn’t seen you drive up behind him.

4. The Code of the Horn Toot

The biggest mystery for me on the Indian roads is the “Code of the Horn Toot.” I am still a little uncertain about all the intricacies of this rule. So far, it seems that if you want someone to get out of your way, you must toot your horn at least twice. Then anyone who is within a 3m radius of your car will move.

This doesn’t always work though. One morning, as we were driving over a narrow bridge, my driver tooted twice to indicate to a motorcyclist that he should move to the left and let our car through. The motorcyclist did this, but then veered slightly back to the right before our car had a chance to pass clearly. The result . . . his mirror clipped the tail end of our car, and he lost balance and fell to the road with his vehicle on top of him.

Thankfully, we were traveling so slowly (see Rule 3) that no serious damage was done, just a graze to the elbow, a broken side mirror, and a damaged ego. That didn’t stop my driver from going over and giving the motorcyclist a serve for failing to listen to his double horn toot. Clearly, the rule had been violated.

On some occasions, I have heard a single horn toot. I have  absolutely no idea what this means and what action it invokes. More observation is required here I think.

5. There is no seating or age limit

The only limit for seating people in a vehicle is engineering. If you can get 20 people into a rickshaw, then go for it. In many vehicles, you will see an array of limbs, torsos and heads sticking out of windows and doors. I once counted seven people in a small rickshaw, and there was a woman sitting on the window holding her child outside the car. So much for wellfastened child restraints.

Even on motorcycles, whole families travel with ease. This morning I watched a family go by, with the husband driving, his 2-year-old standing in front of him holding onto the handle bars, and the wife behind with her legs to one side of the bike while she held an infant. Everyone looked comfortable and happy.  I think this is only possible here due to Rules 3 and 4.

6. If you have a driver, you should never walk anywhere

When I first arrived in India, I stayed with family who were incredibly generous and provided me with the use of their personal car and driver. I am not averse to being driven around, but I do enjoy a good stroll to see my surroundings and get some exercise. One day, I went to visit my cousin at his office (200m from home), and so I chose to walk there rather than ask the driver to take me.  When I arrived, my cousin asked where the driver was and gave me an incredulous look when I explained how I had travelled.

When you have a driver, walking is not expected!

Through western eyes, the Indian driving practices can look risky at first, but the rules protect everyone on the road and somehow keep them safe. Aside from our small bingle (see Rule 4), I haven’t yet seen any accidents. The trick, it seems, is making sure you (or your driver) know(s) what the rules are.

Feel free to comment or add any other rules that you know . 

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