The laws of Driving / Riding on the Indian Subcontinent

Cows absolutely have to cross the road, and it is your duty as an driver in India to be careful of them and NEVER hit them.

Those who have been to India or Bangladesh will almost certainly have told their friends and family that travelling by bus, car or motorbike constitutes an experience in itself. Actually, they would have undoubtedly included the words “crazy”, “death”, “loud” and “thankful to be alive” in their description. I definitely agree that my first impression of driving in India would match what you may have heard before. Most people will have thought this on the ride from Delhi or Mumbai airport!

However, during my two months backpacking trip with the indomitable Sophie, and 3 subsequent trips over the last 3 years for work, I think I have come to figure out how the system works. I will attempt to explain with the subsequent 3 laws (to be found in the Driving Test Aide-Mémoire)

First Law: the Law of the Bigger Engine

Scenario: You are in a small car with a driver behind a tuk-tuk that has missed his last 8 MOTs, spouting black smog in your face. Your driver wants to overtake, and has a look on the other side.

If there is a tuk-tuk or a motorbike in the way, no questions asked. He’s going for it. That other, lesser engined vehicle, will have to move over. Now that vehicle may be lucky if there is a gravel side track, or maybe a slip-road, but no matter, he will have to move. A higher powered vehicle has made it clear he HAS to move.

If there is a truck, van or high powered card on the side of the road, the driver will slow down and let them pass. Understandably, a 17 tonne truck would be favourite in a game of chicken. A van might just edge it, and a high powered vehicle, like a Mercedes, will almost certainly have rich tourists or a Indian politician capable of winning the trial. Best not to risk it.

If a taxi/old car is driving towards you on the other side of the road, this is where it gets tricky. Your survival might depend on the ability of your driver to understand how dangerous the situation would become if he tried to overtake. Pray you chose the right driver.

Exception: If a bus is trying to overtake a car who is trying to overtake a Tuk-tuk, then you are in a sticky situation, especially if the same is occuring on the other side of the road. In this case, the drivers will yield to each other according to the size of their moustaches (See page 17 of the guide for How to Grow a Long Moustache).

Second Law: Always Tell the Other Drivers Where You Are

Scenario: you are arriving into a highly populated area, and suddenly, people tuk-tuks cars vans trucks cattle donkeys lost dogs cats kids old tyre wheels dead buffaloes chai shops bumps on the road and monkeys are everywhere. How do you make sure you do not hit anyone?

In a car, you make sure you use your horn once every 3 seconds, or every time you breathe, whichever comes faster. In this case, people will know where you are all the time, even if they are not on the road. This technique is extremely important to put in place, as it seems that the majority of people, particularly in rural places, do not have the reflex to look when crossing the road, and will only stop if they hear the horn. Funnily enough, this is exactly what the horn was designed for in 1910 (thanks Google). In Europe we seem to have regressed, using the horn as a ritual in the road-rage courtship.

In a truck, you only need to use your horn once (truckdrivers, please do so especially at 4 or 5 in the morning when I am staying in a hostel near the roadside, really, I love it), on entry into a village or town. This is because their horn is so unbelievably loud that even Ganesh and Shiva statues are turning their heads to make sure they are not on its path. Their horns are not only loud, but it seems that they were tuned by an out-of-work classical composer. They seem to play the first notes of Vivaldi Four Seasons, badly, and for a really long time. I have been to many clubs, playing extremely loud (and most of the time, bad) music, but they have not even come close to the sheer anguish my system feels when I hear their hallowed sounds.

Third Law: Always Put Your Headlights on Full (Unless it Uses up Your Car Battery Too Quickly)

In Europe, we rarely use our full power beams, not only because we have many street lights, but we understand that the beam can blind the other cars on the other side of the road, thereby making it more likely for that car to swerve and possibly hit us. Oh, and it’s impolite.

In India, no such concept exists. Particularly with taxi drivers

You’d hope the driver is thinking: “I am putting my head lights on full beam. There are hardly any street lights here and it could be dangerous with the animals crossing the road or the huge potholes.” Seems fairly reasonable. I would have no problem if that was how they thought.

But they don’t! Their thought process is as follows: “I am putting my head lights on full beam. I want to see and I do not care if you cannot see where you are going. In fact, put them on, Let’s have blinding contest! I have just put a new set in. Come on I dare you!” This way of thinking scares me, particularly when they start to accelerate instead of slowing down…

The only person I have been in a car with who drove with light beams on medium was a colleague from Bangalore. When I mentioned this to him at the end of the drive, he merely said: “Oh I would drive with full beams, but it halves the horsepower of my car and my battery would run low in 10 minutes…”

Oh well.

That’s it, the three laws of driving in India. Can you relate to this? Do you have any similar experiences? Can you add a law for me?


2 thoughts on “The laws of Driving / Riding on the Indian Subcontinent

  1. You will be happy to hear that all your three laws of driving are also applicable to Tanzania.

    When using your horn, you can guarantee to cause absolute chaos amongst pedestrians and cyclists alike: they do not only move to the side of the road to let you pass, they jump, scramble and fall into the ditch on the side of the road in order to “survive” a 4×4 swerving around them. Although this reaction made me laugh initially, I think this survival instinct must come from somewhere; possibly the number of road deaths caused by drunk/under age/irresponsible bus drivers who bought their driving license in the local shop? As you say, local travelling never gets boring…

  2. Yes I saw much the same thing in DRC and Uganda. I suspect a lot of drivers think they are the kings of the road when driving, and simply don’t care about the people. What’s more the lack of pavements in 99.9% of the country doesn’t help…

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