Driving in India | India | Living in Mexico

Driving in India

You think driving in Mexico is tough? Let me tell you: Compared with driving in India, Mexico—with its potholes, topes, livestock sleeping on the roads, slow vehicles without taillights, lack of shoulders and voracious cops—is a cakewalk. To a foreigner observing Indian traffic for the first time, there seems to be only one rule of the road: Blow Your Horn.

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The drivers we hire blow their horns constantly. So do all the drivers surrounding us, pressing in on all sides. The din is overwhelming and nerve wracking.

Having been here for a while, I realize that horn blowing replaces rear view mirrors, turn signals and right-of-way laws. A blast on the horn establishes precedence. With a honk, a driver serves notice on those around him that he intends to pass or turn or accelerate, and therefore it is the duty of other drivers or pedestrians to avoid him.

Indian drivers wear out horns. I saw a mechanic's sign that advertised: "Horns Re-Cored."

In India they drive on the left. Sort of. Unless they blow their horns, in which case they can drive anywhere they want. When driving in England, I've always found adjusting to left-hand driving difficult. Left turns become easy, right turns are hard because of oncoming traffic. Glancing up to the right to check the mirror before making a quick lane change doesn't work—the mirror's not there. It's over on the left. Trying to make such adjustments in the chaos of Indian traffic would be close to impossible.

My advice to anyone thinking about renting a car in India? Don't.

For one thing, you have the sacred cow problem. Cows wander unmolested anywhere they want to. They're used only for milk, not for meat, so they breed and their numbers increase to the limits of the available food supply. It's considered bad form to run over one. So when Bossie gets in your way, what do you do?

You blow your horn.

But cows have heard horns all their lives. They're unmoved by insistent honking. So drivers mostly wait until cows amble off to the side of the road.

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One of our drivers came upon a cow lying across the road, chewing its cud. Honking didn't work. The driver got out and kicked it a couple of times. The cow lay there placidly chewing. Finally the driver grabbed it's tail and gave it a mighty twist, annoying the animal enough to make it clear the road.

Road conditions offer another challenge. Most roads between cities are only two lanes. Or fewer. Most are worn out. Within cities, the infrastructure is crumbling.

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Attempts to repair roads create unbelievable traffic jams. Here we see a backhoe and a steamroller blocking the main road through Dharamsala. Three policemen in berets attempt to straighten out the mess—to no avail.

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The few good roads are those leading up to the border with Pakistan. Those are maintained by the army as a matter of national defense.

The only reasonable way to get around on is to hire some form of transport. Horrible, overcrowded buses are cheap. Various kinds of taxis—cabs or vans and jeeps that work like Mexico's colectivos—are more common than private cars. Hiring a driver and a comfortable car for long-distance travel is surprisingly inexpensive. We hired one for the nine-hour drive from Delhi to Dharamsala for around $200.

Hailing a cab at the Delhi airport requires wits and caution. Reports of tourists being kidnapped and robbed are common. Even more common, drivers pretend to call your hotel, informing you that that it has no rooms available for you. Then they take you to a shabby, overpriced place operated by a confederate. Overwhelmed (and perhaps conniving) airport police have been unable to rectify the situation.

One of the least expensive private cabs is the auto rickshaw, sometimes called (as in Thailand) the tuk-tuk. Polluting and grossly unsafe, you can get a ride in a town or city for 20 Rupees and up—less than 50¢. They slice through congestion much better than full-sized vehicles.

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Tuk-tuks are crude. Some are largely homemade. To start his rickshaw, our driver tilted his seat forward to expose the motor, wound a rope around a pulley, and yanked—like an old-fashioned power mower.

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Drivers veer in and out of traffic, exploiting any opening, coming dangerously close to other vehicles. Walking along the narrow roads of Dharamsala, I was twice struck by side-view mirrors.

Last year India surpassed China as the country with the most traffic fatalities: 150,000. Over 85% of those killed were pedestrians. Requiring completion of a drivers course before being given a driver's license is one attempt to reduce the carnage.

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Judging from the drivers I observed, I imagine the training course must consist primarily of weaving and horn-blowing.

One contributor to the fatality rate is inferior vehicles. Coming down the mountain in a tuk-tuk one night, I was unnerved to note that ours had no battery, so whenever the engine slowed, the lights dimmed to virtual invisibility.

In fact, vehicles with disk brakes and power steering are considered hazardous when operated by drivers unused to them. I saw many newer cars with warning signs on the dashboards. Caution! This vehicle actually works!

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Bumper stickers warn following drivers if the truck ahead has good brakes. Really.

In towns, slow traffic is the norm. Handcarts, bicycle rickshaws, milling pedestrians, stray dogs and sacred cows add up to a lot of congestion. Oxcarts are not uncommon. This water carrier is being drawn by a camel. (A dripping hose trailing behind provides a boy with a drink.)

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India is one of the most chaotic and noisy places I have visited. Driving conditions contribute significantly to the confusion. I frequently have to take time out to recover from moments of near-panic or frustration or exhaustion from what should be a simple act of getting from one place to another.

It's hard to imagine how people accept such conditions as a way of life.

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