Much of India’s population is Hindu, a religion that boasts a vast array of interesting deities. It’s said there are 330 million gods in the Hindu pantheon. That gives each god about three potential drivers to look out for. And from a driving perspective, that’s a very good thing, as a monotheistic culture would soon find its God hoplessly overworked just trying to keep all those people from killing themselves with their cars. India needs teams of gods working time-and-a-half just to keep the country from becoming a steamy bloodbath. I thought this was a pretty clever observation until I learned that almost every visitor to India has the same thought. Because, to an outsider, driving in India is fucking terrifying.
I’m not indulging in some travel-writers’ hyperbole here. It’s genuinely insane. Now, before I go on too much more, let me say some nice things about Indians: I found them to be incredibly friendly, clever and resourceful auto engineers, and a people with a rich, fascinating history and an exciting future. That said, I’ve never seen a population of such fearless and wild drivers.
(Full Disclosure: I spent a week in India as part of a Mahindra-organized adventure sparked by a random post I did on Indian cars. Read the full story of why I’m in India here.)
Seriously, it’s nuts. I found myself wondering if there were any rollercoasters in India. If they have them, what the hell would Indians do on them? Relax? Sleep? You’d have to market them as some sort of spa treatment kind of thing, because at least on a roller coaster you know you’re going to come out of it okay.
I noticed this almost immediately upon leaving the airport, when my driver’s total and complete disregard for traffic lanes became clear about 16 nanoseconds into the drive. I don’t think he even acknowledged them as interesting decoration on what otherwise could have been a boring stretch of road. I’d have blamed it on a rare vision disorder if I hadn’t noticed that absolutely every other driver was the exact same way.
At least six separate things happened on that first short drive to my hotel that, if they happened in the US, would have been the only thing I’d talk about for a week. In India, no one seemed to notice. In America if I, say, was driving with my family and drove into lanes of oncoming traffic and lane-split like a motorcyclist just to pass a 3-wheeler going 2 mph slower than the surrounding traffic, my wife would have finalized our divorce before I even got into third gear. By fourth gear she’d be signing the papers to have me committed, and I suspect I’d be in handcuffs by the first stop light.
In India, nobody even bothers to dialate their pupils at these sorts of things.
On the two-lane highway from Jodhpur to the Rajasthan desert, my driver would switch into oncoming traffic, at 100 KPH (60 mph) or so just because the pavement was better on that side. He’d stay in the lane with traffic barreling towards us until the car or truck heading right for us was close enough to read the driver’s wristwatch. Then he’d calmly yank the car back into the proper lane.
And nobody cared at all. Sure, drivers would honk at each other all the time, but they’d do that whether they were trying to coax a cow out of the way or a two-ton truck overloaded to 3X capacity was barelling at them. At their most alarmed, I saw drivers flash their lights, just in case the driver didn’t notice that he was about to drive head on into a white Maruti.
The level of barely-contained chaos is truly staggering for an American. Normal everyday traffic in Dehli looked like how American movies like to show the panicked exodus out of New York after a nuclear bomb or the monkeys get smart and find a truckload of guns or the machines finally turn against us. But it’s all totally normal. Traffic is dense and crowded, and probably follows the laws of Brownian motion more than any recognizible traffic laws.
This is supposed to be a guide, though, so let’s try to break things down a bit:
Lanes: Meaningless stripes on the ground. Ignore at all times, or actually treat with contempt.
High-Occupancy Vehicles (HOV): In the US, we classify certain vehicles as HOVs, and they enjoy special traffic priveleges. In India, absolutely every vehicle is an HOV. Hell, a unicycle could be an HOV in India. Tiny hatchbacks routinely have 6 or more people inside, as do 3-wheelers and tiny trucks. But why keep to the inside, like a chump? Seeing a dozen or more people clinging to the outside of an SUV or mini van is completely normal. Even on a highway. At speed. While the car is weaving around in traffic inches from other cars.
Motorcycles and Motorbikes: These are extremely common in India, and are the perfect vehicle for certain low-demand tasks, like getting a single person to and from work or maybe running quick errands, or, say, transporting a couple of refrigerators or a couple twenty feet of underground sewer pipe, or maybe carrying a family of three with a baby wedged between the parents or propped happily on the gas tank.
Hazardous Cargo Transport: From what I could tell, in India, if you have to transport something dangerous, like a vat of acid or a massive loop of steel rebar or a pressurized propane tank, special precautions are taken. Like, you know, maybe some twine, or holding onto the cargo with your free hand, at least when you’re not shifting or something. In a car or truck, the cargo is safely secured, like in this picture here, where you can see the shooting shower of sparks from the massive iron loops creates a special extra visual warning to passing cars.
Or, in this case, where there’s this pressurized propane tank on the back of this motorbike. When you have something that’s essentially a bomb on the back of your bike, it’s a good idea to be like this driver and make sure to constantly text your friends for moral support and clever quips to keep your mind alert.
Oncoming traffic: Don’t even worry about it. Driving right into the path of another driver is fine. Just make sure to make an action-movie escape at the last minute to keep things exciting. People will be offended if you don’t. Any reason is fine to swerve into the oncoming traffic lane: better pavement, you dropped your drink, you want a better view of the sunset, whatever.
Driving Attitude/Road Rage: Indian drivers are incredibly calm. I’m serious. If any of the stuff I saw happened in the US there’d be constant screaming and pulsing forehead veins and fists plunging into yielding flesh. In India, nobody seems to get worked up about any of the innumerable near misses that happen again and again, even when they have a stunned American journalist in the back seat lavishly wetting himself.
I did see one small accident in incredibly dense traffic that turned into a shouting, poking match, and I was told that’s normal. I was amazed it wasn’t happening more often.
Personal/Automotive Space: In America, we tend to keep reasonably large buffer areas between our cars, when passing or following or most situations other than parking. India is similar, but the boundaries of personal space are a bit different, in that you can be as close to a car as you want as long as it’s not actually touching.
Keep an eye out for the bluish glow of electrons being stripped off their atoms to know if you’re too close to a neighboring vehicle. Anything up to that point is fine.
(This is just a good four minutes of one of my rides into Dehli. Note the sweet ‘30s-era ride at about 1:15)
Horns: A good Indian driver honks his horn while attempting any risky maneuver, such as driving pretty much anywhere at any time. This makes it easy to know when you’re being honked at, as all you have to do is figure out which honk among the never-ending cacophany is for you. Try listening for intention.
Lights: Based on the drivers I was with, headlights are for the weak and if you turn them on then you’ll be letting darkness know it won. Eventually, you will end up giving in, but it’s good to put up a fight.
Pedestrians: One of my guides told me that Indians seem to have no concept of speed. They’ll happily walk right in front of a car doing 100 KPH without thinking twice. He was right, I saw it happen many times. Pedestrians in India have developed special teleportation abilities that allow them to materialize in the middle of streets at will. It’s impressive.
Cows: They’re the boss. They go anywhere they want, whenever they want. If they want to walk onto a highway and plop down for a relaxing nap, then it’s you’re responsibility as a driver to magically transpose all your momentum energy into some form of energy that gives cows massages.
You can honk at them to request that they get out of the way, and they will always respond. The response is them quietly contemplating if they give a shit, which they rarely seem to.
Goats: These guys don’t have the social status of cows, but they’re quicker and can run in front of your car with much more hustle. They love it!
Road Conditions: If you’re the team responsible for piloting Curiosity across the surface of Mars, then the condition of many of the roads should be very familiar to you. There are good roads, certainly, but there’s also plenty with holes in them deep enough to get cast as lakes in dinner theater productions. Also, to keep things exciting, there’s the occasional roadside trash fire.
Vehicle Load Limits: The concept that a vehicle has some arbitrary set amount it can carry, either in volume, weight, or mass is a common myth outside of India. Indians know that whether your vehicle is pedal-powered, has an 11 HP diesel motor or a 200 HP gasoline motor the only limit on what it can carry is how much you can actually get to stay on it, either with ropes, hands, tape, whatever.
Three tons of quarried rock under a huge tarp on a van designed to hold 750 kg? Sure! Two couches on a bike? Have at it. A bull and a stack of tires on a moped? Why not? In fact, eventually someone will just turn a three-wheeler upside-down on the ground, tie some rope to secure the vehicle to the surface, and the entire world will then be cargo for one tiny truck.
Buses: Buses are machines developed by Indian military researchers to prowl city streets and destroy anything in their path, or to even hunt down and eliminate smaller vehicles. A design quirk allows people to get inside them for rides around town.
I hope this helps. I came away from India thinking that their drivers may be simultaneously both the best and the worst in the world. Sure, they take risks that to Western eyes seem insane, and everything is incredibly chaotic. But, at the same time, even with their high accident rate, that number should be much, much higher. They pull it off most of the time, somehow, and are seemingly without fear.
Someday I predict there will be incredible Indian rally drivers. If they can get used to the soothing calm of a rally circuit.