The key thing to remember about driving in India is that it is different, not worse than driving in the US. It also works, which the US’s system would not at the scale of transport that India’s population requires. Here are some basic rules of life when driving in India.
If you do not honk in India, there are two possible reasons:
- you are walking, or
- you have a broken horn.
I even started honking at cars while walking in the road at some point, mostly in jest.
Here are some things that honking might mean:
- I am passing you on the left
- I am passing you on the right
- You are getting too close to me
- I am a car, you are a motorcycle
- I am a car, you are a dog
- Since you are a cow and are laying in the road resting, I will honk at you, but will make every attempt to pass you.
- You are a truck and I am a car
- You are going too slow (usually accompanied by flashing headlights)
- You are making a U-turn or are a person crossing the street. Since I am driving my car in the correct direction on the highway, I have asserted myself and will not slow down, although I may change half of a lane.
- I am going the wrong way down the highway
- I am going around a turn, and don’t want to slow down, but can’t see if there is someone coming in the opposite direction
- I haven’t honked in 1 minute
- I haven’t heard a honk in 30 seconds.
If you don’t hear a honk in a while, something is wrong, and you should check your surroundings for danger. Horns on cars and motorcycles are standardized, but trucks and busses have horn sounds commensurate with their size. They all sound jolly, but you know to be scared when you hear the melody coming from a MACK-truck equivalent or coach bus. On a related note, trucks and vans play some pretty amazing songs when they go into reverse instead of the shrill beeping you hear in the US.
Some roads have lane markers. Do not be confused, and do not ride in the lanes. Lane markers are for riding ON, not BETWEEN. If you’re not a truck but you’re staying in a lane, you’re doing it wrong. You should be darting between trucks more frequently, and you’re endangering everyone else who is doing it.
When a VIP passes you, their security guards will pass you by and wave you to the side of the road so that the VIP car can pass by. Do not be alarmed, as you’re not getting pulled over. Just wait for the caravan to pass, and then slam on the gas! AS soon as you are in the clear, keep as close to the caravan as possible. After all—they are pushing people to the side of the road, so shouldn’t you be taking advantage of this to go 120km/h?
By far, the most popular mode of transportation is the motorcycle. Saje tells us it costs 35000-50000 Rs ($700-$1000) for one. Most are sized way smaller than an American one, but look pretty stable and solid. The most common configuration is to have two people on the bike (often, women in Sarees sit sideways on the back, with the cloth dangerously close to the chain). Seeing three people (A family including a little child) or seeing one person riding it alone are both as likely. Seeing four people is not uncommon, and seeing two people with the person on the back carrying something that could snugly fit in the trunk of a small car is common. Random things I have seen the second person on a motorcycle holding have included a television or two 3-meter poles.
Motorcycles are the best way to get around. They don’t stop at stoplights (though few cars do, either), they don’t pay any tolls, and since they hold as many people as a car does, who needs more:)?
Helmets are not common, and if they are worn, only the driver wears it, not the child in front or in back of them. Protecting a small child means sandwiching them between parents.
These guys are only slightly less annoying in pestering you to take a ride than their pedal-powered equivalents. They have three wheels, and the power and stearing facilities of a motorcycle. Fully loaded, they have no pickup, which is why they try to never stop. Calling them a deathtrap seems unfair, since there are so many, and it’s so easy to pick one up for a several-kilometer journey. They vary in size, as we discovered when we got the smallest one and lost all feeling in our lower body while smushed in the back. Their turning radius is amazing though, and are good for pulling a semi-circle to drive the wrong way out of a traffic jam. I can’t imagine that they are more than a shell on top of a motorcycle, with all of the components exposed, and the driver sitting on top of the battery.
While dogs are more prevalent, cows (and bulls) are everywhere, including the middle of cities. They generally stay to the side of the road, but nothing stops them from walking in it, crossing it, or taking a nap in it. Drivers give them their respect, and living with them is quite nice. We saw one farm with cows on it, but otherwise, all cows we
saw were on the road, train platform, or anywhere where you might fancy eating some garbage. In cities, countrysides, and popular attractions, the cows would flourish. Interesting note: when cows do walk in the street (as in, walk in traffic, not just crossing two lanes of it), they seem to go with traffic, not against it—even the cows have some decency when it comes to traffic rules.
Funny story about cows: While driving in a busy rotary, a cow was blocking our way. After some honking and waiting, Saje hit the gas a bit, and the minivan bumped the cow in it’s back half. It blinked quietly, fishtailed a bit, looked forward, and walked away, minding its own bovinely business.
Bikes are quite common, but these aren’t the Walmart Huffys or sweet roadbikes you see in the US. The closest thing I can compare it to is a commuter or hybrid bike, but without the logos or paints, with more rust, and with none of the parts matching. There is no bike lane, so bikes tend to drive where a lane would be if it was painted on the road (if the road had asphalt). They never wear a helmet, but ride slower and less aggresively than bikers go in Boston, so perhaps it’s for the better. Like motorcycles, you won’t be surprised to find two people on a bike, but three is less common. It’s also not uncommon to see these on some highways, along with pedestrians.
These guys are narrower and shorter than their American breatheren, but carry way more. Rather than carry shipping containers, they resemble trucks that carry dirt in the US, but with stuff piled way higher. To secure those items, a tarp is loosely tied to the top, giving the illusion of security. I have seen MACK-like trucks carrying loose rocks piled higher than the top of the open container, with nothing holding them down except densepacking.
They drive slower than in America, but you must still watch for them. Many are painted in bright yellows, reds, and greens for decoration, and almost all of them say “Use Horn”and “Use dipper at night”, requesting that you utilize headlights.
Many truck cabins are pimped out, with everything from streamers, fuzzy things, cloves, and shrines adorning the inside. This makes passing them a whole lot more fun. The music they play is also to die for!