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The Instructional Guide to High Stakes Driving in India

February 25, 2010

Kevin Burke
The Instructional Guide to High Stakes Driving in India

Think you've got what it takes to navigate India's streets? I've been dodging my fair share of motorcycles and monkeys while I've been in Udaipur (read about why I'm in India here), so I present to you my best practices guide to Indian traffic:

Sharing the road

Expect to share the road with motorcycles, rickshaws, women and children balancing jugs of water on their heads, men carrying pallets of straw on their heads, bicyclists, 4-seaters, cows, merchants hauling carts of fruit to market, tourist buses, cows and water buffalo (who have little regard for traffic), camels, monkeys, and the occasional stray dog. Watch out for weddings, too. Tradition dictates that the groom should walk (or ride, on the back of a horse, camel or elephant) to the bride’s house, often accompanied by a marching band, a motorcade, cameraman, and at least fifty people who look like they don’t have any connection to the groom.

Staying in your lane

Don’t worry about staying in your lane. In fact, when no one else is within 100 feet it’s best to drive right down the middle, so that you can go as fast as possible and still have time to swerve around a stray cricket ball, dog, or child. If you’re trying to turn onto the main street, and there’s a divider in your way, don’t bother with a U-turn – just drive against traffic till you can cross over.

Using your horn

Honking your horn is always preferable to slowing down. You’ll want to honk your horn about as often as you press buttons while playing Mortal Kombat. Sure, you might get a little excited the first time you’re driving on a one-lane road, and a car comes barreling around a blind corner at 45 kilometers per hour, but you get used to it pretty fast; the drivers usually miss by about two feet or so.

Crossing the street

In the excellent book The Strategy of Conflict, economist Thomas Schelling explains how to win a game of chicken; if you rip your steering column out, so that you can’t swerve, then the other driver must get out of your way. You can use the same logic when crossing the street; if you’re hesitant, the motorcycles and trucks won’t give you an inch. The best strategy is to find a low-volume patch, then just put your head down and walk, forcing the rickshaws and motorcycles to swerve around you. This is one time when being a foreigner comes in handy.

How many people can you fit in one vehicle? At least one more:

You have two options to get downtown; take a rickshaw for thirty rupees (about sixty cents) or a tempo, for four (about eight cents). Imagine two North Quad benches facing each other, with about two feet in between, and a driver up front; that’s a tempo. You might think that the maximum capacity is six - three per bench. But you’re forgetting that two can ride up front with the driver, you can fit two more on people’s laps, and you can get at least three hanging off the side and off the back, giving you a total of thirteen.

Traffic engineer Hans Monderman revolutionized the Danish intersection by removing all of the signs and curbs, forcing traffic to slow and acknowledge the presence of other vehicles and pedestrians in the road. With all due respect to the late Mr. Monderman, India beat him to the punch by a century or two. There are no more than five stoplights in Udaipur, a city of 400,000, no stop signs, few lane markers and fewer curbs. Even though no one ever comes to a full stop and you constantly feel like your life is in danger while you’re riding around, there’s a subtle genius at work: everyone seems to get where they’re going--quickly.

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