Winding around rural roads on the back of a motorcycle, veering around semi-trucks, helmetless. Sitting in the front seat of an old car, holding a seatbelt with no buckle, as the old Tata Indica howls like an aged ghoul. Crossing a busy intersection on foot, with no lights, no signals, no stopping the endless sea of traffic. Launching over a hidden speed bump, unmarked by a sign, crashing to the ground before it, hearing the metal of the car creak and moan. Nearly missing a herd of buffalo as you barrel down the sun-cracked highway at one hundred and twenty kilometers an hour.
I’ve never driven in India, nor operated a motorcycle, nor ridden a bike. Yet even as a passenger on the roads of India, I feel the physicality of my mortality, and cling it close to me. I grow intimately aware of the fragility of life. I ready myself, at any moment, for some unpredictable misfortune to befall me, to bring my journey to a loud, screeching halt.
Now, I know the data. Accidents are not uncommon here, but fatal ones are far more likely to happen on a rural American highway, where speeds are higher, where attention spans are shorter, where people follow the rules. The institution of traffic is so well-established in the United States that we put all of our faith in it, so much so that even if an accident is caused by poor road conditions, signal failure, or blind turns, it’s “the other guy’s fault.” Paradoxically, we outsource our own autonomy to the institution of traffic, even as our fellow drivers on the road are fully autonomous, to be held fully responsible for their actions.
There is something about the placid lawfulness of American roads that puts people in a state of presumption. The operator believes that things should be fine, that everything will go as planned, that the driver can sit back, listen to music, call or text a friend without any worries. That presumption is often well-grounded. After all, a red light halts us even at the unconscious level. Many of us have experienced driving to a destination, arriving, and not remembering how we got there.
And yet, inattention is what leads to so many accidents. It’s that automaticity that comes when one’s institutions seem secure. It’s a familiar moment, where you take a turn on the green arrow, or start your car again after stopping at a stop sign, without looking left or right, only to be hit by an oncoming car.
Then again, there is something about the chaos of an Indian road that demands the totality of every driver’s attention. It requires an attitude of suspicion and mistrust of all fellow drivers, and of the roads and traffic signals themselves. You cannot trust that red light will stop other drivers. You cannot trust that your turn signal will catch anyone’s attention. Here, defensive driving means remaining utterly stationary. Aggressive driving means not just being aware of your surroundings, but interacting with other drivers, looking them in the eye, assuring them that, yes, you exist, and you have a destination that you intend to go to.
Perhaps that is why so many people in India hire drivers—to have somebody around who is able to dedicate their entire mind and skillset to the chaos of Indian driving. It is hard.
And yet, to continue to overuse my well-worn maxim, truth is many-sided. There is a system here, at the bottom of everything. There are rules amid the total chaos. They’ve risen from the soil organically, to meet needs on an ad hoc basis, and it is fascinating as yet another example of how two groups with the exact same toolbox can build wildly different structures.
Driving in the United States is a largely visual experience, reliant on traffic laws and signals. It would be really dull to simply state a bunch of laws, so here are some couplets.
Lights tell you to stop and go
Signs to speed up and to slow
Check your mirrors, left and right
Flash your headlights late at night
Blinkers on for when you turn
Parallel parking you must learn
Though you may invite some scorn
If scared of crashing, honk your horn
Driving in India feels more auditory and physical, reliant on structures, pedestrians, and other drivers. More, couplets!
The mirror’s broke so don’t just stare
Honk your horn; we’ll know your there
Blink to tell us we can pass
We’ll honk too, not to be crass
There’s no sign to slow you down
But speed bumps work, so don’t you frown
As you park we’ll help you out
Before you knock we’ll give a shout
I should perform at a driver’s education course.
Some larger cities have lights and signage that are increasingly followed, they are rare anywhere else. In most areas of India, there is no law or traffic infrastructure that is sufficiently respected or adhered to justify an individual driver putting faith in it. It will not serve them. At best, they will be unable to move, caught behind the aggressive progress of other drivers. At worst, they will have been pushed off of the road into a ditch.
And those larger cities with lights and signage are often a labyrinth of urban planning. Mumbai resembles a spider’s web of backroads and flyovers, as city planners have tried to cope with rapid population increase and sprawl within a wholly inadequate infrastructure and an increasingly constrained size.
But people get by. Because, as in any other context, when people cannot rely on systems, like traffic codes and structures, or authorities, like attorneys or police officers, they have to rely on each other. Communities tend to be stronger when institutions for absorbing responsibility and agency are weaker. In Indian traffic, they are quite weak. And, perhaps as a result, or perhaps as its cause, the community of the road is quite strong. People understand the mutual challenges, and they work together. They announce their presence and communicate their intentions constantly with other drivers. They honk not to curse or shout, but merely to remind other folks that they’re around. Indeed, amid the religious invocations and nationalistic overtures, the backs of trucks and rickshaws are almost always painted with the phrase: “HORN OK PLEASE” Pedestrians help too, motioning with hand signals to try to make sure things flow, somehow. Local residents will erect guerrilla speed bumps outside their schools and temples to make sure that drivers can’t speed even if they wanted to. And, ultimately, people get from place to place.
Of course, it’s not all pears and roses, and there are still loads of arguments about accident fault. Besides, you give up a few things when you lack the institutional buttressing. There’s little civil recourse for traffic damages. Something like traffic court exists, but it’s such a pain, and automotive insurance is so rare, that it’s rarely ever pursued. People often have to deal with the damages themselves. And sometimes that means that your bumpers stay a little cuffed, and your carpaint stays a little smudged. Even so, nobody here seems to mind too much. After all, it’s something of a relief to let go of the attachment to the aesthetic integrity of one’s car. As long as it moves without too much fuss, then the car is still a car.
So, never fear, Ronak dear. Take courage. You’ll make it out of these roads alive. Just place your trust, not in the roads themselves, but in other drivers. Not too much trust, though. Stay vigilant, pay attention, and make sure they know you’re there. It’s like a healthy friendship. Mutual trust, attention, and respect. Any less, and just run into trouble.
You can listen to your hippity-hop later.