While I was somewhat isolated at the ashram, I did manage to escape a few times for an excursion to Trivandum and Kovalam or just a walk to the village. These experiences plus my two hour tuk tuk drive to Varkala prompt me to write a post specifically on driving in India, which I can only describe as barely contained chaos. I read somewhere that there are over 300 Hindu gods and now I know why. It would take that many gods to oversee and protect the drivers, pedestrians, cows, goats and tourists that dare to navigate the mele.
First of all there are no rules. All road markings, e.g. crosswalks and dividing lines, signs and traffic signals are more or less general guidelines to be mostly ignored. Honking your horn and passing other cars while driving into oncoming traffic is mandatory. In fact, it’s sport. Below are some of my observations.
- The biggest vehicle wins! Buses always have the right of way and are to be feared. They crush through the streets with fearless abandon and it is up to other drivers and pedestrians to get out of the way or be killed. Large trucks are in this same category but they don’t trump a bus. To show how incredibly powerful they are, bus drivers rarely honk their horns. They are the gods of the roadways.
- Motorcycles and tuk tuk’s and cars fight for space on the crowded roads. You will see them side by side fighting for the same piece of road, honking at each other and close enough to check the time on the driver’s watch. Seriously, I’m not even kidding. And while you may have one motorcycle, one tuk tuk and one car side by side, another car will honk and attempt to pass them all by driving straight into oncoming traffic. It’s insane.
- Passing drivers in front of you is mandatory, even if you are going the same speed, it is still your duty to pass them. Oncoming traffic should be ignored completely. In the US, we wait until there is no double line and zero oncoming traffic to attempt a passing maneuver. These are not considerations in India. Hairpin turns nor blind spots do not affect passing at all. I sat in my tuk tuk as my driver drove straight into oncoming traffic in an attempt to pass someone going maybe 2 km slower than us. He calmly swerved at the very last second back into his lane (or close enough) to avoid death. I saw this repeatedly. Driving into oncoming traffic seems to be a rite of passage.
- Two lanes = eight lanes. Dividing lines are completely ignored, as are crosswalks and traffic signals. Many times there were as many as eight vehicles side by side on a two lane road. Sometimes six of them were going one direction with a small narrow path for oncoming traffic.
- Cows have the right of way. Cows are only second to buses in the road hierarchy but only because buses are bigger. If a cow wants to cross the road or just lay down and have a quick nap, this is allowed and drivers must go around. Goats do not enjoy this same privilege but they are faster and able to get out of the way.
- Honking is fun. Indians don’t use turn signals or headlights. These features are apparently not included in the owners manual or perhaps they don’t even work. Honking is the preferred method of saying, I’m passing, I’m coming through, I’m entering the intersection, I’m pulling into oncoming traffic, I’m here, get out of the way. Whatever. When I was walking on the streets, I thought people were honking at me; but no. Indians honk for everything imaginable cos it’s just fun.
- Pedestrians have no right of way. Crosswalks are a joke. You are at high risk if you are walking and you should use extreme caution. Take a tuk tuk. There’s safety in numbers.
- Road rage. There is none. Indian drivers are incredibly calm don’t seem to take any of this insanity personally. Driving of this sort in the US would assure screaming, pulsing foreheads and window bashing followed by a trip to jail. In India, there is no road rage. It does not exist that I could see.
- Accidents are few. I didn’t see one accident during my 3.5 weeks. I was told these do happen of course, but not at the rate I would have thought.
- Maximum persons/weight limitations do not exist. I saw 10 people crammed in a 4 person tuk tuk, families of six on a motorcycle while the mother was breast feeding an infant, bicycles piled with propane tanks and water cans, cars and trucks carrying mattresses and concrete slabs (same thing in my opinion). There are no restrictions. If it will fit, you can carry it and then drive into oncoming traffic with abandon cos it’s just fun!!
I swear, it was something out of movie and has to be experienced to be believed. But all that said, I made it safely and never witnessed an accident. While it may seem like insanity and chaos to tourists, it’s everyday life to the locals and to be embraced.
I hope your day is tranquil and peaceful, unlike Indian traffic!! Namaste.