Recently, my family and I had the opportunity to experience many modes of transportation on the crowded streets of northern India. Our two-week journey took us through six cities and five states. As our travels began in Delhi, one question immediately came to mind: are Indian drivers crazy?
Nothing can prepare you for the sensory overload of driving in India. In addition to drivers’ wanton disregard for such universally accepted standards as stop lights, lane lines, and direction of travel, you never know what you will encounter. Sleeping cattle, trees in the middle of traffic lanes, herds of water buffalo or sheep, human, horse, or oxen powered carts, monkeys, elephants, goats, dogs, pedestrians, and inanimate objects are commonplace. Adding to the mayhem, a cacophony of horns blares non-stop.
“You need three things to drive in India,” a driver, Hari, informed us, “a good horn, good brakes, and good luck!” Another driver, Vickie, cheerfully shouted “India, India,” each time he narrowly avoided disaster, sometimes adding “I love my India,” after an especially close call.
I longed for the calm, order, and safety of roads back home in Arizona where pedestrians cross the street only at stop lights that display a white hand when it is safe to do so and large, orange numbers count down how much time is left to cross; where Animal Control picks up strays, and fences hundreds of miles long prevent wildlife from entering freeways on which one can easily exceed eighty miles per hour (130 kmh); where car horns are seldom heard.
Nevertheless, after observing Indian drivers for days, a different picture began to emerge. When one driver, Ashok, wished to overtake lumbering trucks that sported “HONK PLEASE,” or “USE DIPPER AT NIGHT” on their tail ends, I noticed that he would honk or flash his high-beams. If the road ahead was clear, the truck driver either flashed his right turn signal or waved a hand out of his window indicating that it was safe to pass.
More and more I noticed that honking, waving, and high-beam flashing were not signs of anger, but communication. They were a courtesy extended not only to other drivers but to animals and pedestrians as well.
As I adjusted to Indian driving, I grew to deeply appreciate the communication, compassion, and skill of drivers. Never once did I witness anyone angry or uncooperative. Vehicles missing each other by mere inches highlighted not carelessness, but a keen awareness of the vehicle’s dimensions and how it fit into the limited road space available. More importantly, in almost two weeks of congested driving, I never once saw an accident or a dead or injured animal.
I learned that when people respect life and each other, when they share space instead of trying to own it, and when they are engaged and focused instead of distracted, there is little need for rules.
Then, I considered the differing reality of my homeland. A plethora of enforced rules has made drivers complacent, bored. They plod along like cattle, distracted by technology and entertainment when they should be dedicated to driving responsibly. If an animal or person steps into the road anywhere but at a stop light, they will almost certainly be gravely injured or killed. Instead of being used to communicate, horns seem reserved for expressing outrage.
In the U.S., I’ve witnessed as many as six accidents an hour while driving on a perfectly sunny day on a straight, eight-lane freeway with moderate traffic. We’ve become lazy, irresponsible, uncaring, and selfish drivers. If we offend someone (by taking a bit of their space), instead of honking at us, they may harass us for miles or threaten our lives with a handgun.
Rules can never replace common sense. Increased regulation robs us of skill. A lack of compassion and commitment kills countless thousands of people and animals every year. We could all learn something from Indian drivers who somehow make unimaginable situations work seamlessly.
I am thankful that we made the decision to skip the tour bus in favor of cars and rickshaws and experience Indian driving intimately. The drivers who shuttled us everywhere showed infinite patience for my ceaseless questions about India and Indian driving while they skillfully avoided disaster from moment to moment.
Despite my shock over situations we routinely encountered, I felt safer in a tiny rickshaw crammed with six passengers and having no safety equipment whatsoever than I ever felt surrounded by airbags and restrained by a seatbelt in the U.S.
Kudos to Indian drivers who, as it turns out, are not crazy after all. In my opinion, they rank among the best drivers in the world.
Image courtesy of Hugo Cardosa, Flikr CommonsShare