Six Perils of Traffic in India and how to Survive Them
Land of Elephants, Bollywood, Bhangra, and Cricket. Where a haircut and shave costs $3.40 CDN, and lunch only only $1.25. When I said I was going to India people told me it was the hardest country in the world for a traveler. That after India every other country would be easy in comparison. That India runs based on controlled chaos. That the food will give me the shits and the air will clog my lungs. In all honesty I have found this to be mostly true.
Not everyone said negative things some went on at length about how beautiful the country is. How relaxing and pleasant it is. That there are adventures to be had that are exciting, safe, and enjoyable. Mostly they said how inexpensive the place can be. Inexpensive is good for me.
I came here to attend a wedding and to find out what India had in store for me. After years of reading and watching movies about India I finally get to experience the real thing. And the first thing I experienced when I landed at the Vadodara airport was traffic.
India has a population of 1.3 Billion people and I feel I have seen every single one of them on the roads. Then I realize that I am staying in a smaller city, and I have only seen one small part of that city and dawns on me now much traffic there really is in India.
I have been staying in Vadodara for the last two weeks. I only have this small reference point with which to judge the traffic here. I’m not an expert on Indian traffic rules (aparently they do have traffic rules here) so I base this this article on my own experience being driven in cars and rickshaws, and through actually driving a scooter in traffic. Something I swore I would never attempt even just a month ago.
In India traffic lanes are a suggestion, flow directions are guidelines, and shoulders are a place for street vendors. The roads are an excelent example where being bold definately helps a person get ahead in life. Traffic patterns get made up in the moment, and the person with the right of way is the one who honks their horn the most.
Every vehicle in the country has a horn and drivers are only too willing to honk theirs. When I arrived at the Vadodara airport I was immediately aware of the warmth, the smells and the sounds. In particular the sound constantly honking of horns.
The horn is the signal of choice for everyone. I have only seen turn signals being used about three timessince I arrived. One of those times the driver was going down the highway with no intention of changing lanes at all.
Flashing their bright lights is the only other signal drivers use. And that is mostly on the highways. Another trick is to just leave their high beams on all the time. That is an indication they mean business and are so important that you should just melt off the the side as they race up to the rear of your car. The best action to take is to slowly pull to the left and let them pass.
The horn can mean many things;
- I’m approaching you from the rear/right/left side, so give me room.
- I’m actually passing you so Im going to keep blowing my horn till I have passed.
- You have been stopped in front of me for more than 1 second, get out of my way.
- I have the road to myself so I will make noise by honking.
- Traffic is stopped with no visible sign of it starting. I will honk continuously to let everyone know I want them to move, even though I can plainly see that everyone is jammed together with centimetres between bumpers and no one has anywhere to move.
At first the honking seemed very random and scattered to me. It made no sense at all. But after doing more driving in traffic I realize that the honking has a really great use. Its kind of like sonar. I found if I just relax and let the honking move over me I get a whole new perspective on how traffic is flowing. With this new insight I now use my horn like a local. Honk!
2. Direction of traffic
Traffic in India flows on the left hand side of the road. At least its supposed to flow on the left. I notice that if traffic is not flowing fast enough then people simply disregard the center line and drive into oncoming traffic.
I spent most of my life living in both Canada and the US where traffic flows on the right hand side so the change has been a bit of an adjustment. The time I spent in New Zealand before coming to India has definately helped me feel more comfortable with the different traffic flow here. However my comfort level goes out the window when I suddenly see a dump truck driving down the road against the flow of traffic directly at me. No I don’t have a photo of that.
If you are not familiar with driving on the left the best option is to always be following someone. Thats easy to do here because the roads are always packed with vehicles. Keep an eye out to your left for vehicles driving the wrong way in your lane.
I really have no idea why there are even lane markers on the roads here. Maybe its for decoration, or some sort of government make work project. No one pays attention to the lane markers. Every driver on the road is trying to get in front of every other driver and take advantage of each gap available. I appears that people hug the lines so they can take advantage of any gap that does open up.
For that matter there is no rule on passing. Except to try and not hit anything or anyone, and honk a lot so everyone knows you want to pass. The goal on passing is to get your front tire further ahead than theirs. Doing so gives you the right of way and the ability to cut them off.
Do what the locals do; don’t bother picking a lane when someone will be pushing you out of it within seconds. The key is to flow gently between the lanes, never staying in one for more than a handful of seconds.
There are none! They are full of people walking, selling things, cows, and traffic flowing in the wrong direction. Except on the highways, there are shoulders on the highway. Though they should be called passing lanes and not shoulders. Except when they have vehicles broken down in them. Then they are dual use breakdown/passing lanes. Adds that little extra bit of excitement when speeding down the highway.
Best action is to avoid the shoulders. You will either be stopped by someone broken down in front of you, or you will have someone on your ass honking and flashing their bright lights to get out of their way. Stick to the centerish part of the road. Where its easy to slide back and forth between the traffic that is flowing at generally the same speed.
The type and amount of thing you need avoid when driving is endless. You can literally see anything on the roads. Just yesterday I watched a guy walking down against the flow of traffic with his shirt pulled over his head. No, I don’t have a picture of that either. I am including a list of things I have actually had to avoid while driving or being driven. I have broken the list into three sections.
|Scooters and motorcycles||Gravel and Sand||Traffic Cops|
|Horse drawn carriages||Missing sections of road||Dogs|
|Trucks||Fire (yes, the road was on fire)||Camels|
|vehicles being repaired/pushed||Mud||Goats|
6. Traffic cops
Most intersections I have seen are uncontrolled. Any intersection with astreet light has been set up so the red light is on for everyone except the left turn lane. During the times when traffic is heavier there will be traffic cops directing traffic. They wear masks on their face and carry a stick which is used to help direct traffic. From what I have been told they are also on the lookout for a bribe if they can manage one.
I can only think the traffic cops were assigned to this job for punishment or because they are masochistic. More than once I have seen traffic cops using their stick as a cane due to what I can only assume was a disagreement with a moving vehicle. If there is an intersection that does not have a traffic cop you are allowed to direct traffic yourself. More than once I have seen random people trying to help unclog an intersection. I commend their bravery, but question their inteligence.
As a white guy riding a scooter I am a prime target for a traffic cop to try and get a bribe. Usually by questioning the validity of your drivers licence. Only recently I realized I should have gotten an international drivers license prior to travelling. When I started this trip I didn’t plan on doing any driving so I never looked into getting one. FYI, In Canada you need to apply for one with CAA and it costs $25 CDN.
Anyway, avoid the traffic cops. On a scooter this is fairly easy to do unless traffic is really jammed up. Simply drive around them and keep going, don’t stop to see what they want. Chances are they are flagging you down to tell you that you are not licensed to drive in India and you need to pay a fine. Even if you show an international license they will say it is not valid and you have to pay a fine. You can get out of that by offering them half of what the fine is worth. If you go the official route the fine is documented on paper with the government. If you just pay the bribe then there is no paperwork.
However, the takeaway is that even having an International drivers licence will not get you out of this situation. Its up to the discretion of the traffic cop. And do you really want to fight a stupid traffic ticket just because someone was looking for a bribe? Take the easy route, drive around the cop and don’t look back. This is probably bad advice but its worked for me so far…
Driving in India is a different experience than in Canada or the US. Its impossible to “zone out”. Traffic forces you to be present at all times. A lapse in focus can end up with bad consequences. One of the things that makes driving less intimidating is that traffic rarely goes above 50 km per hour so the speeds are relatively slow compared to North American standards.
Do you have a crazy traffic story to share?.