Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some Basic Concepts for Driving in India

So you fancy yourself ready to drive the hi-ways, by-ways and no-ways of India. Well let me tell you that it can be a very rewarding experience. After every ride you go on you will get out of your car, or off your bike and kiss the ground you rode on in gratitude that you survived another misadventure.

Actually there’s basically one or two concepts that I want to share with you that has helped me survive my recent travels from Barmer, Rajasthan to Manali, Kullu and back and these are:

Concept 1) Always drive defensively.

Now this may seem self evident, but after you have driven a while you may have the tendency to become a little to confident in your skills and analysis of the driving patterns you engage in and think to yourself that you’ve got it. So here’s my next concept for you to mull over.

Concept 2) When you think you’ve got the hang of driving in India, stop where you are and slap yourself strongly enough to get rid of that egotistical thought.

Why, because you will never understand Indian driving and there is a good and logical reason for this: no one does or ever will. Here’s why: You see some drivers here think there are rules and try to abide by them, some know there are rules and just ignore them, some are not even aware of any rules and drive as they wish, some are too young to drive but drive anyway and have no concept of anything, let alone driving and should be driven far away from as possible, and most drivers don’t have any idea what driving is all about, from etiquette to the physics of moving masses and beyond.

Please understand, all this seemingly negative or dismissive talk about the way Indians drive is none of the sort. I am merely trying to describe the driving scene as I see it and have experienced it. In all considerations of the “art” it always comes down to Concept 1 above.

So what does it mean to drive defensively? Will to start with, you must always where a helmet when driving a motorcycle. I know that when you look around and you see that most bikers do not wear a helmet and you like the feeling of the air blowing through your hair and catching bugs in your teeth. But you also love yourself (or at least respect yourself) and so show the world your love and respect and put the hard hat on. You will also be doing a community service by modeling to those who don’t wear helmets, the right/safe way to drive. And besides, if you do have an accident resulting in a head injury and you were not wearing your helmet, you health insurance will be invalidated.

But there are many other good reasons to wear a helmet: the visor keeps bugs, stones, dust and heat (or cold) off your face. If you drive long distances with no helmet (or the visor is up) your eyes will quickly dry out and get irritated as will your lips. Hence you are no longer kissable. A helmet also keeps your head a bit cooler/warmer as it insulates your head from the outside heat/cold, especially if your are using a white coloured one, which I think is the insurance rule in any case.

Driving defensively also means never, and I mean never never never never take your eyes and mind off the road. No daydreaming, not putting your vehicle on automatic control, no looking around to admire the scenery (unless you desire to become a part of the scenery). Driving in India means having a long attention span. If you don’t have one now, you will. Why, because every conceivable and inconceivable obstacle will come at you from all directions. Let me list a few so you get the idea:

Cars, trucks, buses, military vehicles, construction vehicles, motorcycles and scooters, bicycles, three wheelers, tractors, ox carts, camel carts, horse carts, goat carts, people (every variety), dogs, goats, cows (and you already know there’s lots of those around) cats, peacocks and hens, deer, chickens, vultures, rats and road hazards such as bricks, stones, boulders, sand, mud, glass, garbage, re-bar, dung (all types) holes and bumps, just to name a few. But there’s another catch, if you drive at night, most of these objects do not have any lighting whatsoever, including the motorized kind. And recall what I wrote in the previous paragraph, these challenges will come at you from the front, head on (remember the rules of the road: there are none), from the sides and rear and even from above and below. Never underestimate a falling tree or a truck that is packed too high and is about to rip out the power lines above it while you’re driving behind it.

Again, let me reassure you that although these things may seem comical to our foreign ways, these things all exist and happen (but not necessarily at the same time, but then again I suppose I could be proven wrong on this point).

Another lesser known defensive driving technique that I have found to work in many situations, is just to stop where you are, or in some cases like when a truck in heading directly at you at 100 kph, get off the road a.s.a.p. or sooner. When I first drove in India back in 1976 I was told that one of the rules of the road was that the slowest vehicle has the right of way. A bit oxymoronic I admit, but I have found that when I can’t figure out what to do in a complicated situation I just stop and wait for the dust clouds to clear. But use your judgement on this on as it pertains to Concept 1.

And one more little thing. If at all possible, don’t drive at night. Some of the reasons for this have been mentioned above, like objects on the road with no lighting, but also when there are vehicles with lights they will normally be on the high-blind-the-driver-coming-at-you level. And as a matter of interest the signs you see on some trucks that say: “Use your dipper at night” has no known English translation.

Hope these few thoughts don’t scare you off the road, but if you are planning a trip by vehicle somewhere, please call me for a whole lot of other details that could fill volumes.

I love to travel, But hate to arrive. -Albert Einstein

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