India’s Got A Driving Problem

Anybody that has driven or been driven in India know that it is not a pleasant experience. Heck, just being on an Indian road or street can be a highly stressful experience. Personally, I detest driving on India’s roads and I would call it as one of the most annoying experiences India has to offer. For many many years, I had a faint hint of hope that things would surely change for the better, but after a decade of being on these streets, I’ve completely lost all hope.

You know the rules of driving in India, wait, there’s just one rule and that is: “I’m the only one on the road”. Here, nobody likes to wait behind a vehicle, either in motion or at the signal. Everyone has to be at the front and in this quest we shall not care about clogging the free left or turning right from extreme left. We will also keep inching forward while waiting for green because that somehow makes red disappear faster. Don’t worry, all the action isn’t only for the lead drivers. Those waiting at the back while away time by spitting god-knows-what on the road, or trying to see how close their vehicle can get to the one in front or the side. Autorickshaws are trying to see if they can magically fit their tin-box into a gap meant for cats. Motorbikes are jostling hard to get to the much-vaunted front, and will climb footpaths and other Indian road undulations (such as your feet) to do so.

Red changes to green and mayhem occurs. Those at the front have the golden opportunity of being able to shoot themselves into a direction of choice. It’s different for everyone else. Drivers at the back see “Green” and their hands instantly reach for the large Indian horn-pad to scare the hell out of people like us around. For most Indians, though, it’s their wake up call to get their mouths in check (from spitting), phones go into pocket or into an awkward head-tilt. Autorickshaws will now try to get their junk machines to start, two wheelers will need to kick their mopeds into life, beggars will have to now move off the road and any pedestrian trying to cross over will need to run for life. Traffic starts moving an inch and you know it because there’s suddenly a massive cloud of black thick diesel and white kerosene smoke rising from tailpipes and there’s maddening honking everywhere. Nobody has any idea who’s taking what direction.  Everyone forgets lanes (if they knew what they were in the first place) and drive all over the road like they were scrambling for gold, but magically get their vehicle in the direction they intended to take.  Soon, the light turns to red but worry not, for there will be another 2 dozen vehicles that will make it before some decide to stop. Aah, the bliss of being at the front of a signal-wait.

Once let loose on the road, we drive with a happy bliss and leave all worries to the lemons hanging from the bumper (post puja). Driving too fast? Lemons. Following too closely? Lemons. Sudden lane change? Lemons. The lemons will automatically connect these drivers to whichever god they pray to and he creates a safety shield for the vehicles and it’s passengers. The aim is to drive fast, so long as you are in the general direction of your destination, then leave everything else to lemons. You don’t want to slow down for anyone and it’s pedal-to-metal if you see an empty road, forget vehicle dynamics and road conditions. On a congested road, honk a lot, and you might finally annoy someone into giving way. Remember to honk often, for that’s nitro-boost for your engine.

Also, when in doubt about any road “rule”, honk and ye shall find an answer. If you’re unsure where to go, honk and someone might appear at your window and tell you where to go. Municipal authorities selected a few streets and painted intermittent white lines that we’re not sure why. Hmm, maybe they are there to let the road-user know they’re still in the correct direction. We often wonder why they had to waste so much paint for telling direction. Oh wait, maybe it is to make up for the near-complete lack of street signs anywhere. There are a few signs peppered here and there but that’s for killing time on streets where there isn’t enough action in the form of stray dogs, pedestrians, cows or crazy drivers.

Then there is the complete lack of courteousness and the pushy behavior of a significant percent of motorists. If you’re in their general direction, even diagonally, they shall swerve and let you be known that you were supposed to have anticipated their move and slowed down. After all, they have important business to attend to. On undivided roads, the entire street for everybody, you choose the direction. You can drive on the left side or the right or even perpendicular to the traffic direction, it’s up to you. There will be a lot of honks in meek-protest, ye shall ignore them.

There is also complete ignorance and abuse of “high-beam” and it seems people are trying to illuminat other driver’s faces, rather than the road. It is nearly impossible to drive in India when it’s dark, and you can just manage if you choose to fold your rear view mirrors, else you’ll be completely blinded by vehicles at the back. Requests to dim lights are seen as requests to flash lights to dim and back to high beam. I have no choice but to switch to high-beam to be able to see something on the road. It’s weird, but I’ve seen some drivers switching to low-beam for 1-2 seconds and as I say “aah, thanks” and switch to low myself, they switch back to high-beam. I don’t get it.

I could write a book with a dozen chapters on India’s driving habits, but if there’s one common behavior that I see on the wild wild Indian roads, that’s this: We drive like we walk. Go to any busy bazaar street and what do you see? People jostling for space, walking inches within each other, randomly changing directions to go faster, some will even physically move you out of the way if you walk too slowly for them. We know where we want to go and we will make way for ourselves to be there. We all know the common push with hands or bellies from those behind. Also, there’s no queue system at any Indian counter and it’s service for the most pushy and loudest, and it reflects on the streets.

Most of the mess could be curbed with strict rule enforcement but in India, everybody’s innocent and the one with the meekest voice or without any ass-saving names to throw around (police officers, politicians, media connections) are the culprits (mostly middle class). By the way, all those 1.3Lakh people dying on India’s roads forgot to hang lemons.

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