I love travelling. I feel like the more I travel, the better the story teller I become. My trip to India has given me one hell of a story to share with all of you. To be honest, it’s a collection of near death experiences. Driving in India is a task designed for the most fearless of adrenaline junkies. Even being a passenger is terrifying; countless potholes, the intense humidity, and not to mention that your life is in the hands of a driver who doesn’t even have a seat belt on. There are twice as many hazards on the road in India than anywhere else on the planet; and it’s not just other drivers you have to be wary of. Sometimes it’s like a zombie apocalypse – the zombies being clueless pedestrians incapable of telling the difference between the road and the pavement.
While journeying home from the airport, six separate things happened, which if I was in the UK, would be my main topics of conversation for at least two weeks, but in India, no one seems to notice! In the UK, if I drove onto the opposing side of the M25 just to overtake a tuk tuk while furiously honking my horn and flashing my headlights at an oncoming lorry, funeral preparations would be made before I even got into third gear. By fourth I would be under the wheel of that lorry, and if I was still alive, I’d be in handcuffs when I regain consciousness.
In India, nobody even bothers to dilate their pupils at these sorts of things.
While on a two lane motorway during my trip from Kerala to Tamil Nadu, my driver would switch to the opposing lane of the motorway at 60mph simply because it was smoother to drive on. There was no indicators, no hand signals, just the relentless use of the horn and the driver’s confidence in his own reaction time. I appreciate him wanting me to have a comfortable ride, but I’m sure there’s nothing comfortable about an oncoming vehicle colliding with ours. He’d stay in the lane until the car or truck heading right for us was close enough to read the time on the driver’s wrist watch. Only then would he calmly yank the car back into the proper lane.
I must admit, it is impressive how drivers in India manage to repeatedly escape such close shaves. The key is not to panic. While sitting in the passenger seat and observing my driver, I came to the conclusion that watching him drive made me feel more at ease than looking out onto the road. Sure, drivers would honk their horns 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 tanker filled with petrol was barrelling at them. It was amazing how even at the scariest of moments, the driver’s facial expression remained the same.
I also noticed that flashing lights means the complete opposite of what it means in the UK. On an urban British road with parked cars spanning the length, drivers often stop for each other. They flash their headlights as a considerate signal for the the other driver go through. In India, when you flash your headlights it means, “I’m coming through whether you like it or not, so make way!”
Road hazards can be interpreted differently from an Indian drivers point of view. With lanes (those pointless stripes on the ground), you either ignore them or you treat them with contempt. No one ever sticks to their lane in India. As for overtaking… it is a skill that takes time to master. Imagine the two sides of the road as two countries in conflict, and each time you cross the border to overtake a car in front, you put yourself at risk of being gunned down by vehicles travelling in the opposite direction.
Another nuisance on the Indian battlefield/road are motorcycles. They are extremely common, and by that I mean, they are literally everywhere. If they are not on the road, they are parked in an inconvenient fashion to the side of it, preventing traffic from flowing. But they are the perfect vehicle for low-demand tasks, like getting a single person to and from work and maybe running quick errands. Or, say, transporting a couple of propane gas cylinders, or maybe carrying a family of four with one child wedged between two parents and the other propped happily on the gas tank.
The trick to facing oncoming traffic in India is to stay calm. Just don’t worry about it. Driving right into the path of another driver is fine; just make sure to do an action movie escape at the last minute to keep things exciting. A series of close shaves is, after all, what keeps the traffic flowing in India.
In terms of road rage, I can honestly admit that Indian drivers are THE calmest. If any of the stuff I saw happened in the UK, there would be constant shouting, angry forehead veins, and fists plunging into yielding flesh. In India, no one seems to get worked up about the countless near misses.
A good Indian driver beeps his horn while attempting to carry out a dangerous manoeuvre, such as driving anywhere at any time. I have wondered whether Indians actually communicate with each other by honking horns, because no one ever complains, in fact they honk back as if to reply to each other. Horns can also be very deceiving; on the county roads of Wayand, every corner is a blind one. You can imagine the fear in my mind when I heard a train horn while we were going into a corner at 60mph, only to be met by a motorcycle with an abnormally large horn.
My friend describes Indian buses as machines developed by Indian military researchers to prowl the streets and destroy anything in their path, or to even hunt down smaller vehicles and eliminate them. A small flaw in their design means people can get inside them for rides around town. The hatred that cyclists in London have towards red buses is very similar to how everyone in India feels about buses on Indian roads.
On many occasions, I was a pedestrian; or at least I thought I was. Even to be a pedestrian, there are many rules in India. Many have no concept of speed; they will happily walk in front of a car doing 50mph without thinking twice. At pedestrian crossings, you should not stop your car to let pedestrians cross, because they won’t, that’s too predictable. In fact, just as you are about to move off, they run across, giving you yet another mini heart attack.
My thoughts after leaving India are that Indian drivers are simultaneously the best and worst drivers anywhere on Earth. They are good in the sense that the high frequency of near misses would be very difficult to maintain if you didn’t have the experience. On the other hand, creating situations where you are literally staring death in the face, such as an old tractor barrelling towards you, could be avoided. Even with the high accident rate in India, I am convinced that number should be much, much higher. Yet somehow, they pull it off, and they do so without fear.
With this in mind, I predict that someday there will be a new breed of amazing Indian racing drivers. But this can only happen once they get adjusted to the calmness of a race track.