I have had the pleasure of driving in many parts of the world. Being fairly observant and having a tendency to theorize about everything, I have come to form a general theory about driving habits as well.
You see, each place has a set of driving norms, a grammar or a dialect of driving, if you will. In Marseille, France, for instance, if you switch on your turn signal on a multilane street, people will immediately let you in. It’s not because they are polite and considerate drivers (quite the contrary, in fact), but a turn signal indicates the drivers’ intention to change lanes, not a request to let them. They are not seeking permission; they are merely letting you know. You’d better let them in unless you want a collision. In Geneva (Switzerland), on the other hand, the turn signal is really a request, which is usually denied.
In India, the turn signal doesn’t mean a thing. In fact, most things don’t mean a thing when it comes to driving. There are no rules, and no priorities. If you come to a four-way intersection or a round-about, nobody has a clue who is supposed to yield, and who has the right of way. In practice, the boldest and the most ephemeral goes first. If I’m driving, it is usually me. The whole thing is a lot of fun, if you are an adrenalin junkie.
To be sure, Indian streets are the deadliest in the world. Everybody you talk to in India has tales of uncles or cousins who perished in car crashes, motorbike accidents or by the rash act of standing by the street. And it is not merely because we have a lot of uncles and cousins in India. Our Indian driving habits are particularly unhealthy, and we export them as well. When I was a graduate student in the US, I used to hear of these horrific accidents involving fellow Indian students. Well, I had a couple of them myself as well, so trust me, I’m not playing holier-than-thou here.
Indian infrastructure is improving by leaps and bounds in the last decade or so. But the driving grammar hasn’t changed. They now do, on a four-lane highway at 120km/hour, the same stupid stuff they used to do at 40km/hour, with catastrophic results. And, even now, they think that seatbelts are for wimps! Government regulations related to seatbelts and helmets are unnecessary attacks on our personal liberty, apparently.
Well, there is a silver lining, If you really want to see one — soon all these bad drivers will die off, and the same Darwinian principle that gave us opposable thumbs will give us safer Indian streets. Some day.
Photo by Jeff Porter Denver