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Day 50: Driving in India

INDIA | Thursday, 27 March 2014 | Views [217]

This is a special entry on driving in India. If you've ever wondered what these foreign taxi drivers in big US cities (think New York) were thinking when they drive crazy, you will understand after you read this article. Note: I did not personally drive anywhere in India, or even take a bicycle. And I prefer not to walk anywhere. Crossing the street, if not outright perilous, is a real headache.
Driving in India is an amazing sight. To begin with there are many modes of transport. Walking is still quite popular, although there are no sidewalks. The road is the sidewalk.

Then, there are bicycles. These are more prevalent in some cities and rare in others. No bike lanes either. Custom dictates the walkers take the shoulder and bicycles ride along side them.

Then motor bikes. Going fast, honking, weaving in and out, they will go into any space in order to go forward.

Then rickshaws. First bicycle rickshaws - these are everywhere in the north, but I didn't recall seeing any in Chennai or Kolkata or Darjeeling. Again, slow, they stay to the side of the road. Then, a variant of bicycle rickshaws, bicycle carts. Carts can carry anything from sacks of potatoes or grain to long wires, pipes (I've seen up to 15 feet long being carried), cables, or fruits and veg. Often they will be steered by a bicycle, but sometimes they are just pushed down the street by their owners. These take up room and are very slow moving, like an elephant. They stay to the side. 
Auto rickshaws on the other hand can go pretty fast. Maybe a top speed of 50 mph. In two lanes of traffic, both lanes going the same direction, they usually ride the middle line. The lanes are really just a suggestion and people generally completely ignore that they even exist.

Then trucks. Trucks can be small or large. Trucks tend to stay to the right because they are driving slow and most have the words Blow Horn beautifully painted on the back of them. This is a serious request. They want to know that you want too pass. Sometimes they will move to the inside of the lane because of their shear size.

And buses - usually large - will also move to the inside because they are so large.

Finally, cars. Faster than all the other vehicles, they always stay to the inside and on a country road with only a single lane each way, they will ride the center line.
Now for the obstacles.

Potholes. Not as plentiful as you might think for a third world country, but when they're there, they're huge. You want to drive around them.

Speed bumps - an enormous amount of these on all roads, even the main ones. Not really painted to stand out, they sneak up on you.

Cows. I didn't see any cows in Chennai or Mumbai, but everywhere else the streets have been full of them. They wander around, stand near the median, sometimes right in the middle of the street. People honk at them and then drive around. The cows don't even appear to notice that all this is going on around them. They are the ultimate enlightened being in this way. Probably not the reason they are goes as part of Hinduism, but it should be.

Dogs. Stray dogs are everywhere wandering around and sometimes standing in the street or even sleeping in the street. Like cows, they ignore most off life around them and the drivers just drive around them.

Elephants. There are no elephants left in India. I saw one, on my last day of touring. It was not in the street or the jungle, but in a Hindu temple blessing parishioners.

Camels. Also no camels in the road. These are still used a lot in Rajasthan, the desert state, but they don't wander free.
Now for drivers etiquette.

Honking is required. Are you passing someone? You honk to alert them to move over. Are you coming to a blind corner? You honk to alert any oncoming traffic that you're approaching. Is someone or something in your way? You honk to tell them to move the hell over. Do you just want to go fast and pass everyone? Lay on the horn and don't let up.
Mind you, there are no traffic lights. I've seen about 6 in the whole country. Usually they also have a counter to show you how many seconds until the light changes. This is so novel, but intelligent. I'm sure it will be coming to America soon.

Without a light, a vehicle slows a bit upon reaching the intersection and simply finds a path to the other side. There are also traffic circles, but still no yielding. Just enter with care and proceed.
To go left, you simply go left. To go right, you hang your right arm out the window or the rickshaw. Then proceed right. Those behind you will simply veer around you. Remember, the traffic is on opposite side of the road from the US. 
If you missed the place you wanted to go to and you need to go back, but it's a one way street, no problem. Simply turn around and drive with caution into oncoming traffic. They will veer around you. I'm not kidding! This is absolutely acceptable.

Now you have some idea of the chaos. Honestly, it's amazing I haven't seen an accident yet.

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