Monday, August 14, 2006

Quips on Indian Traffic

Most traffic lights don't really work. And even if they do, you better watch out.

There are no standards for road signs or for lane markings or the color or the markers. Sometimes lanes are divided by yellow lines, sometimes they are white. Sometimes they are solid white, sometimes the two sides of the road are divided by double yellow lines, sometimes just a single yellow, and so on...

There are no stop signs in India. There are speed-breakers (otherwise known as bumps) instead, at the most unexpected of places on a highway or on a road. speed breakers take various forms. The simplest one is just a huge bump. Another is a series of small bumps. Then there are small protruding discs or cubes(dozens of them) covering about a meter length of the road surface.

Lane discipline and lane markings, are non-existent. Lanes can only work in a nominally homogenous traffic. In India, one will find, in the busiest of highways in the biggest of metros, everything from bullock carts to Mercedes S Class sedans. In most places, three cars will occupy two lanes. Suddenly the lane will disappear and two lanes will become one.

There are no turn lanes. So if you are in right lane, you might very well get stuck behind a car that is waiting to take a right turn on an intersection. So, most people wisely stick to the left lane, even if they have to drive fast. When they encounter a slow vehicle, they honk at it (if unable to just overtake it by moving into the right lane.) The slower vehicle might move to the left or the right, depending on the stars. If it goes to the right lane, it will continue in it till the next honk...

One cannot be expected to follow laws if everybody else around is breaking them with impunity. Traffic cops stop you for an offense and then let you off after a bribe. It is easier to pay a bribe than to go through the legal process. Bribery to get off the hook is injustice to the other so-called common men who are following the traffic laws.

Indian roads and road-signs are not designed to deter breaking of the law. They actually encourage it.

Honking in the west primarily means either "Wake up, move" or, "Hey, what are you doing asshole." Both are exceptional circumstances.

However, in India, honking is done as a matter of course, but contrary to what many think, honking is not a harmless phenomenon prevalent due to the Indian psyche. Frequent honking actually signifies the persistent breakdown in regulated traffic and can mean either of these things on an Indian road:

"Hey look, watch out. I am coming."
(People make sudden lane changes without noticing whether anybody is already in the other lane. People drive through red lights honking loudly.)

"I am overtaking you, notice me."
(In other words, "I know you are in your own world, but be careful, I am coming into the lane next to you, so continue in your own lane and let me pass.")

"Invisible people beware!"
(Badly designed intersections need honking so that at least a warning noise is there when visuals are impossible. It is for this reason that Enfield Bullet is the safest two wheeler on Indian roads. As its ads say, "People hear you before they see you." The thump of a 350cc single cylinder. Bravo!)

"Speed up." or "Give way."
(Since the horse-power of vehicles on an Indian road is anywhere from 0 to 300, there is every possibility that both the lanes on a road are filled with rickshaws or cows or beggars or people just having a fun time spitting or haggling with the fruit vendor.)

"The light is green. Why can't I move?"
(As soon as the light turns green, the patient Indian roadster who has five cars ahead of him can't seem to figure out why, with the light green, he is not zipping at the speed of 60kmph.)

One finds an utterly remarkable device in Indian cars these days. It is the reverse-gear beeper. As soon as the car is put in reverse gear, the car starts sounding loud beeps or melodies. Now why would one need such a device? Two reasons: Hubris on the part of the driver (why look back when he is sounding such a loud beep that everybody should get out of his way) and unawareness of one's surroundings on the part of the other creatures on the road (the road is their property, what is this car which is slowly moving to and fro and honking, well he's honking, so he must want to get somebody who is in front of the car out of the way. Ater all, how do they know that his honking is for them. Oh, it is the reverse honk. Okay, sorry buddy, moving away.)

Since fuel is so expensive, so one finds imaginative ways to save it. Cars running on domestic LPG cylinders. Cars and motorcycles going the wrong way because to take a U-turn further up the road would be really expensive.

High beams!! As soon as the sun sets, a thousand suns rise on the Indian roads. Most drivers are actually unaware that there is a setting called the "low beam" for the headlights. The road seems brighter with a high beam, very nice, so why not?

Now there are many reasons why driving with high beams is so common. Firstly, Indian roads are very badly designed and constructed with an uneven pavement and usually no white lines at the road boundary. It is pretty dangerous to drive at 60kmph with only a low beam when the road ahead might have potholes the size of a bunker. The farther one can see the road, the better.

Secondly, the attitude is, "I am in a hurry and my life is more important than yours. So I need to see the road and to hell with you. If you are blinded, well, too bad. Just wait till I get past you and then you can carry on."

On many trucks one will find the painted messages, "Horn Please" and "Use dipper at night." "Horn Please" is simple enough: It just means "Honk if you need to overtake."

The second message is slightly more complicated. There are various interpretations. According to one interpretation, it asks the reader to use a low beam at night. According to another, it means that instead of honking, one should toggle high beam and low beam at night to signal an oncoming vehicle or to request a vehicle in front to "give side" (to let one pass). The irony is that the message is written in English, which a very small percentage of Indians are going to understand.

And if for some strange reason you curse the driver or the road or anyone in general, you are reminded in no uncertain terms, "Buri Nazar Waale Tu Zeher Khaale!" ("You evil eyed one! Why? Take some poison.")


Ankit said...

Your blog seems to have moved from philosophical to more mundane matters.
BTW the translation in the last line was hillarious.

Anonymous said...

The post is hilarious.

I feel traffic is an exaggearyed representation of lie in general in a community. It would be ineteresting to take each aspect that you have taken (honking, no lanes, high beam light etc.) and draw up paralleles to other parts of the Indian society. Am sure there would be many.

We are a hilarious, full of ironies society..


swati - leena's friend said...

Hiya! wow you have great patience to detail everything quirk that you observe on the roads! hilarious! gonna send the link to others i know!

Anonymous said...

Alright!!! Traffic problem in india is pathetic. Specially traffic lights not working properly...While browsing i came across a website: discussion is going on indian traffic scene...traffic problem in india...Traffic authorities should do something...But they don't...

Varun Nagpal said...

Ah! My favourite topic.. :-)
This is something I wrote sometime back to touch upon the lighter vein of Indian traffic.
Horny Indians
The time has come to accept that Indians are horny. Hornier than others. Hornier than ever.

If you need proof, just go down to the local main road and stand at the red light area and close your eyes and feel the rhythmic honking. Let the horny orchestra seduce you. The soprano is usually an old Bajaj Chetak struggling to keep the engine alive but the driver will be at his horniest best. It is joined by the various Esteems and Santros and WagonRs pitching in with their performances in alto. And if you are lucky enough, you will be able to witness the husky baritone of the rare truck that happens to pass by your neighbourhood. All in all it is a rich experience.

If you spend half as much time on the roads as I do, you will concur with my claim that all Indians are honkers by birth. It’s not a right they exercise. It’s a basic instinct that they respond to. And contrary to popular belief and human nature, a traffic jam is a desi’s delight. Especially post-lunch jams under the blazing sun are particularly cherished. What else could serve as a dessert better than the thick sweet jam of Indian roads?

But not all denizens are equally horny. You will encounter all shades of people on the road. And if you are (un)lucky enough, fate will throw at you, an opportunity to rub bumpers with the most elite of them too. For easy reading, I have classified them in the following sections. I am sure you will be able to identify yourself with some or the other. And if not, please feel free to add on your type of horny people.

Adamant Auto-rickshaws

They ride in gay abandon, oblivious to the throngs of vehicles behind them expressing their darkest wishes in the horniest manner as possible. My two cents is that these drivers (who by the way never sit straight, always askance) were taught in the auto-rickshaw training school (if there exists such an un-educational institution) to “keep to the left of the road” but which they misheard as “keep whatever is left of the road” and decided to follow it religiously. So, if you come to look a bit closely at this complex ecosystem, the auto-rickshaws rarely contribute directly to the melodious symphonies that ensue on the road. Their feeble attempts at honking, more often than not, get drowned in the melee around them or to be precise, behind them. It is the honking which they cause, when they block the traffic behind them, is what takes the lion’s share.

Boisterous Babus

They travel safely in Ambassadors but rarely are the ambassadors of safe travel. You can see them rush past red lights with a puff of smoke and a beep of nonchalance. But it’s understandable; I’ve heard monkeys are color blind. Employing drivers who forgot the B in the ABC of driving (Accelerator-Brake-Clutch), they feel that the best form of defense is offense. Even their logic is incontrovertible – Who can refute when they claim that the red light on their car’s roof is a license to ignore the red light on the traffic signal?

Callous Car-waalahs

Despite the various makes and models of cars that ply on roads, the one common trait that brings them all under the umbrella of this section is their callousness. The car waalahs live in a permanent delusion that they are the rightful owners of the roads. Little do they realize, which they would have had they studied their history rather carefully, that when roads were first built in India, cars were not yet invented. But, I digress. This incorrect assumption often leads them into personal squabbles over others invading their personal space on the tarmac. And over a period of time a special protocol has been developed and polished through generations of car owners, which starts with honking horns, going on to hurling insults, and if things are really hot then a rudimentary display of martial arts on either side, finally ending with one party (always the one with less connections ‘up there’ irrespective of right or wrong) behind bars.

To elaborate on the various flavours of car owners I have taken pains to classify them as following:

Young blood… will bleed

The youth of today. The flag bearers of tomorrow. The future of India. Listening to Himesh Reshammiya sneeze his way to nasal popularity. They think wearing sunglasses at night is cool. Usually to be spotted in bright colored cars (model and make directly proportional to either income or if no income, then father’s income). This genus of car-owners deserver their rightful place in the traffic ecosystem as entertaining jukeboxes in course of a long traffic jam. Their contribution to the orchestra is always as the percussion. They honk in rhythm with the beats of the song playing in their car stereo. Lost in the hypnotic effect of rhythmic honking, they usually end up in H&R scenarios (hit and run). After all, they’re young blood!

Safe Players - My teeth fall faster than I can change gears

The pioneers of driving. The blood of yesteryears, now simmered down and circulating in a body crouched over the steering wheel. These respected old men have it all – patience, sobriety, forbearing, unhurriedness. Their insecurity on the road shows up conspicuously, as they desperately try to cope up with an altogether different league of drivers, with both hands gripping the wheel. These poor uncles, out of no fault of theirs, bear the brunt of excessive honking from their other callous peers. Having learnt driving on Fiats and NEs they never get accustomed to the gear stick on the floor and play it safe by sticking to first two gears only. Much to the chagrin of the rest of the traffic. They do their musical bit via intermittent long honks. Just to make sure everyone heard them.

Taxi Drivers

Cabbies are the backbone of transportation system in India. And very adept at breaking the backbones of many too. Seat Belt is another optional clothing accessory for them. The most unique stunt you can observe them performing is checking the tyre pressure while driving at a speed not less than sixty kmph by opening the door and glancing down for 2-3 seconds for which the passenger’s heart stops beating. Their favorite instrument of mass disruption is the horn. They honk when irritated. They honk when relaxed. They honk when sleepy. They honk when in a jam. They honk when it is needed. They honk more when it is not needed. At night, the pleasure doubles with dipper lights at their disposal. With amazingly synchronized honking of horns and flashing of headlights, they create an almost surreal atmosphere of a discotheque.

The Upper Crust

These are the most educated and sophisticated of the lot. That is, up till you hand them the wheel. They usually are US returns, having a glorified view of the land of opportunities and a totally opposite opinion about their motherland. Frustrated by the fact that the common man has no say in the parliamentary proceedings, they voice their opinions through the loudest means as possible – honking. To “cut them some slack”, they are obedient drivers, have car papers in order and follow traffic rules. But when it comes to the honking, they are the horniest men ever! Peeved by the Indian atmosphere full of dust and smoke, they travel in a permanently air-conditioned environment. The only time they are exposed to the true Indian air is in the short hop from car door to home door and back. These isolated conditions make them unaware of the decibel level of the horn that they blow. The high-end cars which they travel in also have special amplifiers I believe. Even car companies are building disabled-friendly (extra loud horns for deaf people) products nowadays.

Ludicrous Ladies

It would have been unfair to the fairer sex had a separate section not been devoted to them. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world and honks the horn most unnecessarily. Ever since the women’s liberation movement gained momentum, they are on the lookout for ways of empowerment and have wrongly deduced the horn to be one such power. The horn is the answer to all problems. It doesn’t matter if they never used the external rear view mirror. It doesn’t matter if they use the internal rear view mirror only for make-up. It doesn’t matter if they keep the headlights always on high-beam (“What’s high-beam?” they’ll ask). It doesn’t matter if they reverse the car without looking back. All that matters is that no traffic orchestration is complete without a solo performance from a lady driver.

Meandering Motorcyclists

These are men of the future. Literally. They overtake you first and sound the horn later. By the time you realize what just rushed pass you, they are busy doing the balancing act again rounding another car in a dangerous curve. Some fancy guys dare to install horns meant for four-wheelers onto their two-wheelers. Poor chaps, that’s the closest they can get to luxury. That, in fact, is a real tricky and slick move. The driver of the car ahead expects a car behind whereas a motorcyclist rides by in a blur honking away to glory. They are at their musical best when performing as a choir group. Each bike acts as a motivator (or rather a rival) for the other. The harmony thence produced is rarely surpassed and is a sight to witness. Add on it the latest fad of brake tunes. A dash of Bollywood chart toppers at every speed breaker ensures that their journey is never the same again. I wonder whether there are copyright issues with this or not!

Tunn Truck-waalahs

They are the happiest of all road dwellers. Who wouldn’t be after downing a full bottle of desi thharra? Their contribution to the whole horny affair is of a folk nature. Their blaring music on the dilapidated stereo is nothing as compared to the jarring honking guaranteed to shake you till your bones. The music takes a truly Indian touch when they put up a rubber horn in the truck. Literally in high spirits, used to driving on the highways, they make merry… while they last that is.

Footnote: Be it cars or bikes or cycles or buses or trucks, everyone contributes to the traffic snarls in their best possible way. Indian roads are a melting pot of humanity. The most ideal example of secularism. Here no one is a businessman or a carpenter. All occupations vanish. All economic statuses dissolve. No religions exist here. Expletives are hurled in all languages, all dialects. Each person on the road suffers. And in this sufferance lies equality. said...

Almost 10% of the global road traffic accidents occur in India. Much of the world wide web is full of sarcasm & mocking of the indisciplined driving on Indian roads. Unfortunately in since 60 years since independence the authorities have failed to publish a National Highway code. Licences are given to anyone who can demonstrate an ability to use the clutch-accelerator, consequently the motoer driving schools teach just that and no more. Concepts such as - blindspots, principle of MSM, the tyre & tarmac rule, 2 second gap and most improtantly giving way are not known to the average Indian driver.

This site has been created with the purpose of providing driver education and training to all Indian road users. It is by far the most comprehensive website providing training in defensive driving. Learning simple road habits can make our roads safe and also free up congestion caused by traffic chaos.

At present 17 driver education videos aimed at changing the driving culture on Indian roads are available. The video are unique in that the footage is real life action from streets of London. We have copied the Western habits: Replaced the dhoti with denim, high rise buildings for Indian cottages, burgers and coke instead of Indian breads and perhaps sugarcane juice. Surely we can copy the Western ways of travelling too.

To watch the videos, interested readers may visit:

The videos cover the following topics:

Video 1: Covers the concept of Blind spots
Video 2: Introduces the principle of Mirrors, Signal and Manoeuvre
Video 3: At red lights, stop behind the stop line
Video 4: At red lights there are no free left turns
Video 5: The Zebra belongs to pedestrians
Video 6: Tyres and Tarmac (rather than bumper to bumper)
Video 7: Merging with the Main road
Video 8: Leaving The Main Road
Video 9: Never Cut Corners
Video 10: Show Courtesy on roads
Video 11: 5 Rules that help deal with Roundabouts
Video 12: Speed limits, stopping distances, tailgating & 2 seconds rule
Video 13: Lane discipline and overtaking
Video 14: Low beam or high beam?
Video 15: Parallel (reverse parking) made easy
Video 16: Give the cyclist the respect of a car
Video 17: Dealing with in-car condensation

Many thanks

Anonymous said...

Even after 7 years of this post our traffic sense haven't improved a bit...and equally applicable for small, big citiees and metros ..