First of all, the way Indian people drive in the streets is much different than what we are used in Europe. It looks chaotic, until the unwritten rules are understood. Constantly, there is someone using the horn. However, they use it different: European use the horn very modestly, either to warn about a serious danger or if one gets really angry. Indians use the horn to signal the driver in the front that someone is coming from the back indicating “please move aside, so I can overtake”. This works very well, everyone is cooperating quickly and no-one gets angry. The following video is from a normal day in the Pink City area of Jaipur. The sound you hear in this video is the norm – it never is quiet in an indian street…
The second big difference: There are rules, but most are ignored. The only rule I noticed being respected were red lights or police man ruling the traffic. Otherwise, everyone finds his way through the traffic. Sometimes, vehicles even drive on the opposite lane if this seems faster, easier or whatever other reason they have. Indian drivers are not stressed about such incidents. They just make their way wherever possible. – Many streets have no pedestrian walk. This is why you often see vehicles parked or stopped at the side or pedestrian using the same space the cars require. Indian drivers just ride around these temporary obstacles as this is normal. If there is a possibility to overtake a vehicle, it will be taken. And everyone is fine with this. I sometimes wonder, why streets have been applied with lane lines as no one cares about them. In a double lane street, cars are happily driving in the middle of the street, “using” parts of both lanes. Should there be a solid line in the middle of the street? No problem; this is considered decoration: If something needs to be overtaken, it will, no matter what the street signs indicate.
The good side of this behaviour is that indian drivers must be very concentrated, always taking into consideration that suddenly an obstacle might occur. That’s why I barely saw any accidents in the streets. Another reason for very few accidents is that it is not possible to drive fast. The fastest speed was probably at the highway between Jaipur and Agra at nearly 90 km/h. There are always slow vehicles or animals in the street, the tar often is severely damaged through heavy rains or the street is slowed down through rough speed-bumps at junctions, around schools, hospitals or toll stations.
In Cochin, I had the opportunity to experience driving in Indian streets myself: I got a bike from the hotel. The bike was not optimal but this made the experience even more fun: The frame was too small, the saddle constantly slipped back into a steep position, the brakes were weak and the last time, the chain got oiled must have been at production time. When I drove through the streets of Cochin, I realised the concentration you require: All the participants in the traffic from all sides and on the ground for holes and speed bumps. Very quickly, I enjoyed the flexibility and tolerance in this system, e.g. to start riding on the wrong side of the street and smoothly integrate into the flow of the traffic. During these 25 km riding in the city, I always felt save as I knew that everyone respects the other one in the traffic.
Pedestrians usually have no priority. Nevertheless, it is relatively safe walking in the streets. The only time I got bumped aside was by a cow who wanted to make her way without circumventions. When a pedestrian wants to cross the street, no vehicle is stopping. As there is generally lots of traffic in the street, there is almost never an opportunity to cross the street with no vehicles in sight. Therefore, I learned that I just start walking, constantly checking the coming traffic. In all cases, vehicles drove around me, never putting me in a real dangerous situation.
Vehicles in the street
Everything is seen in the streets, in all variations and with different types of load, sometimes overload. In general, you see a lot of motorbikes. I got the impression that a middle class family can afford a motorbike but not a car. Therefore, you often see more than 2 people on a motorbike. The driver is usually a man, most times wearing a (old) helmet. The second person is usually a woman, sometimes wearing a helmet, sometimes not. Due to many women wearing sarees, they often sit sideways. The three person configuration usually includes one kid squeezed between the father and it’s mother. This must be the best way to secure them on the bike. If there are 2 kids, then the other one usually sits in front of the driver, many times holding the steering wheel. Hopefully, kids do not take too much control on the driving… – I have also seen configurations of 5 and 6 people on one motorbike. In such a situation, the mother held the kids as good as it gets… Unfortunately, I have not seen a single kid wearing a helmet. And I have seen reminders that motorbike drivers must wear a helmet. I assume that no helmets exist for kid sizes. This is sad. – As a motorbike is often the only vehicle a family owns, the bike is also used for a lot of different transports. I often saw motorbikes with up to 4 gas bottles mounted, two on each side. If the load cannot be fixed on either side of the bike, the drivers or co-drivers always find a way to transport their (sometimes bulky or long) goods.
In Rajasthan, a lot of animals are seen in the streets. While people use camels or horses to transport their goods, farmers might move their heard of cows or goats across a street. Traffic stops for the time of the crossing and interestingly, no car horn is used in such an incident. This is just accepted by everyone. But there are also wild animals in the street: Cows, dogs and a few abandoned horses and donkeys make their own way through the streets. Especially the cows which are considered holy and so must be respected, show no signs of fear in the traffic. Even if the slowly walk against the traffic, they always seem to be relaxed…
Public busses are highly used. Most times there is not enough seating capacity and people must stand, often very very close to each other. I decided not to experiment such a cozy bus ride, despite the temperatures which usually were between 33°C and 38°C… – In case there is not enough space in the bus, people also climb to the roof of the bus. This was more the exception and I only have seen this on the highway between Jaipur and Agra, never in a city.
With the trucks, I was fascinated about their design: Every truck I saw was hand painted. The designs include a lot of details. I wonder how many hours have been spent to decorate an average indian truck. At the rear of the car, they all write “Horn please”, “Use horn”, “Blow horn” or similar. As using the horn is the norm anyway, I am surprised that this is seen on every truck as well as on every tuk-tuk.
Tuk Tuks are seen everywhere: They are small, flexible and usually the cheapest taxi you can get. The small size still gives an opportunity to seat (squeeze is probably the better word) up to 6 people plus driver in one single tuk-tuk. At first, every tuk-tuk looks the same. Looking closer, you notice that every tuk-tuk is individualised: It can be the decor of the seats, the design of the roof, a special print outside of the tuk-tuk, etc. One night, we rode a tuk-tuk from a restaurant back to the hotel. Big loud speakers were installed at the back of the seats. We asked the driver if we can have some music. He was proud to showcase his Tuk-Tuk Hi-Fi. He put the current India hit “Sunny, Sunny” at high volume and drove off. The four of us started to dance in the tuk-tuk. We had a lot of fun on this ride and I think the driver was the most excited as his Hi-Fi investment created happy guests…
During my five weeks in India, I have spent quite some time in taxis. There was always something to be seen and even for long taxi rides. The longest was about 6 hours for a distance of 200 km. I was never bored as there was always something new to discover. Either the different types and shapes of vehicles, activities at the side of the street or the landscape, in the rare situations I came through non-populated areas.