Friday, March 31, 2006

Good Horn, Good Brakes, Good Luck


I’ve been in a car since I can remember. When I was a kid, my folks would put us into the back seat in the hope we’d nod to the rhythm of the road, and they could get some quiet time together; and, like most American families of the 1950’s, our family traveled by car.

On day long trips from Erie to DuBois, Pennsylvania to visit my uncle we’d count all the places George Washington slept. It appears he slept a lot. We took that trip many times, and I’d wait for a particular railroad crossing in Titusville that was an extended rise and dip that caused my belly to flip like on a roller-coaster – usually the high point of the drive. We took longer trips from Erie to Manhattan, and I’d get butterflies of anticipation in the Lincoln Tunnel for the energy that was ahead. We took even longer trips to Miami during which we’d slow way down in Georgia - speed traps, shotgun shacks, and chain gangs; and the longest trip, from Erie to Acapulco – about which I remember very little but some strong counseling to quit reading and start looking out the window.

In 1971 I hitchhiked three round trips from East to West coasts, mostly non-stop except for whatever time it took to thumb the next ride. Destinations were of no importance. It was all about motion and experience, and was mostly experience in motion.

I’ve spent huge chunks of time on the Interstates, the Pan-American Highway, the trans-Canada Highway, the Autobahn; I’ve experienced the thrill of a Neopolitan traffic jam; and I’ve cruised two-lane blacktop, dirt road, and barely road wherever I’ve lived.

Nothing prepared me for India.



I know the highway as metaphor for life is way overused, but the thing about Indian highways is that there’s no metaphor involved, the highway contains it all. It’s a great civics lesson that encompasses population, economics, politics, and attitudes. The highways are the here and now – a great anarchy. When Daniel Moynihan, past ambassador from the US, called India a “functional anarchy,” he could have been referring to life on the road.



The anarchy at its most revealing is a stretch of road on the Delhi/Jaipur highway. It’s a rush hour nightmare, and it takes close to two hours to travel one mile between the Haryana border and the Indira Ghandi International Airport. It’s a four-laner, but the two lanes in either direction become five or six lanes of bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic, with two lanes off road. Vehicles are so close together that side mirrors get folded in to allow just that much more room. Drivers who don’t fold their mirrors tend to loose them.

Between cars vendors of cheap toys, magazines, tissues, food, and flowers earn their living; and amputees, beggars, holy men, and urchins elbow in asking for a spare rupee. Women bump their babes-in-arms (their own or rental-units) up against windows prompting wails and, so they hope, guilt in the drivers and passengers. There’s no escape, no backing or u-turning out of it, but there is hope, at least in the mind of the bus driver who swings suddenly off-road and barrels through a gas station looking for some advantage, or the scooter driver who hoists his machine up onto the raised meridian to crawl around bushes and trees, just managing to avoid citizens wrapped in blankets and bedding down for the night.

Horns never stop, and conform to the definition of a “micro-second” in India: the time it takes for a light to change and the first horn to blow.

And then it ends.

The traffic disperses in two turnoffs and you feel you’ve driven out of a storm.

That describes the worst of it – the best is similar, the traffic just moves a little faster, and speed is managed as occasion permits.

David Gibbons, a mad South African friend, was supposed to catch a flight out of Delhi with me. When it was time to leave for the airport he found himself engaged in a conversation, and we decided to take two cars, though David had the luggage. I left first, with the suggestion he get a move on it. When David finally did get on the road he encouraged his driver with a few hundred rupees to make haste. The driver decided the best strategy was to drive against traffic. David not only concurred, but rewarded the driver with hundred rupee notes every time he avoided an on-coming disaster. By the time I got to the airport David was there, lounging on our luggage, as nonchalant as only a maniac out of danger could be, with a story we’ll both be telling until the grave.

Passing on the open road is also quite a sport, and timing is a split-second calculation. On-coming traffic doesn’t adjust for the passing vehicle, and games of “chicken” have been known to be deadly. For some reason, most of my drivers have assumed the charge of passing everyone, and allowing no one to pass them. They may have been trying to reflect my importance by constantly moving to the front of the line. I’ve tried to surrender to the idea that my drivers have been just as interested in reaching home as I, but have had cause to wonder. The concept of re-birth can remove temporal fear. After one hair-raising near miss I asked my driver what he thought the painted lines on the road were for, and he told me he didn’t know, they were, “left over from the British.”

I’ve found that on a whole Indians are kind and gentle, generally welcoming, and open to a smile and a handshake. If there is such a thing as a national characteristic, I’d say its patience. You wouldn’t recognize any of this from the drivers though, except perhaps patience for folly.

Despite the chaos and aggression, I’ve witnessed little anger. Advanced insanity is met with a shrug, a wag of the head, and sometimes an outright laugh, but in three years I’ve only seen two altercations between drivers, and they seemed to have had more to do with venting than real anger. Another reason for the lack of fisticuffs is that one of the parties invariably speeds away, and the greater the mishap the quicker the escape.

Police have a lower boiling point. The slogan of the Delhi police is “With You, For You, Always.” A pretty frightening slogan, especially if you have any paranoia about police states. A friend told me the slogan should be, “Fuck with you, and fuck you always.” At one intersection a bicycle-rickshaw driver pulled too far into traffic and caused a jam up. He couldn’t move back because of the car on his tail, and moving forward was impossible. The cop swaggered up to the wallah, slapped him, then took him by his arm and gave him a shaking. Only after the corporal punishment did he start moving traffic around. I suppose the slap was better than a ticket that could have cost the wallah a week’s pay.

The police are notoriously corrupt, and very few tickets are actually issued. Standard policing is to inform you of the financial severity of the violation, say 1000 rupees, and let the bargaining begin. On the off chance the officer may be honest a bribe is not immediately offered. The offender’s gambit is usually something like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly afford that much,” or “I’m carrying very little cash.” The officer will rejoin with, “This is a serious offense, and I must fine you at least 750 rupees,” and this is when the driver is clear that all is negotiable, and the bargaining can become more obvious. Settlements are reached pretty quickly, but the police have the upper hand, so you may find yourself facing a second ticket for something like pulling over without the proper hand signal. My friend Rakesh once successfully bargained his way through a fine only to be told he was stopped in a no parking zone, and the fine for that was another 500 rupees. Timid souls will enter another negotiation, but drivers with any savvy will tell the cop to go to hell, and drive away. Rakesh, being a gentle soul, though not timid, just drove away. The cop was vulnerable because he’d already accepted one bribe, or in more polite parlance, “accommodation.”

When police grab criminals on the highway it’s usually at a border crossing. All state borders have check points, and cars are pulled over for license, emission, safety checks, or a legitimate tax. My drivers have always gotten us through with no infractions, but hundred rupee notes have changed hands – not always for the legitimate. Ram told me about one checkpoint where cars are routinely stopped for emissions tests. The testing mechanism is rigged, but, no problem; you can have your car fixed on the spot. Of course the mechanic is in cahoots with the police and no work is actually done – though the impression of work is masterful. The poor drivers end up paying the police, and the mechanic, for what is essentially a rest stop. Uniformed, though off-duty police often stop tourist vehicles and demand money. Some of these guys will step in front of a car, forcing a stop, while their partners extort the cash. Experienced drivers won’t stop, and will even push through the cop planted in front of the car. Santosh, my last driver, would scowl, speed up, and mutter some epithet in Hindi.

All this wheeling and dealing has put a major dent into respect for the law, so just about anything goes; and the equation for highway lawlessness hinges more on how life threatening an activity may be, rather than how illegal.

There also don’t seem to be any regulations on what can or can’t ply the streets or highways. I remember a newspaper story about a gentleman who couldn’t get his car out of reverse. Rather than get the transmission repaired he rearranged the front seat so he could somehow drive backward without having to crane around the front seat. It worked so well he decided to drive from Delhi to Pakistan as an advertisement for peace between the bellicose neighbors. The general rule seems to be that if your contrivance has wheels, no matter the form of propulsion, the great anarchy will allow you entrance.



Carts are pulled by people, burros, camels, even elephants. Bicycle rickshaws carry unimaginable loads balanced by the grace of God. Tractors pull carts over-loaded with people and implements. Scooters carry families of four, and bicycles are just a death wish for whatever numbers occupy one frame.



Trucks are so grossly overloaded they tend to fall onto their sides and look a lot like dead animals, spilling their cargo instead of blood, while drivers and bystanders circle ‘round and gesticulate madly in order to raise the dead.

Highways double the danger of city streets, and are also encumbered by villages, either by being built through them, or by the villages having sprouted up next to the roads, on either or both sides. You could be clipping along at a health fifty miles per hour (any faster is suicidal therefore unhealthy), and be forced to a crawl in what seems to be the middle of nowhere. It’s not nowhere, though, it’s a thriving economic district.



Mechanics, tire repair, bicycle repair, scooter repair shops, vegetable markets, furniture stores, clothing merchants who show their wares on two-story wooden frames, so the goods look like crazy quilts displayed above the throng and into the sky, barber shops; often you’ll have three or four similar merchants alongside one another – four barbers, no waiting – or tin goods and twine, (how did that combination come to be?). By western standards these businesses are cobbled together and run-down; by village standards they’re valuable real estate, and going concerns. And these “economic zones” are busy -with pedestrians, rickshaws, camel carts, tractors pulling hugely overloaded and ballooning grain sacks, children jumping mud puddles, and elders sitting on cots smoking hookahs. Dwellings are small, and villagers live out of doors, and you’ll find them along the highway – eating, sleeping, bathing, doing business, or just hanging out.

These villages rule their strips of road and turn the highway into a lane. The motor traffic doesn’t seem to be entirely necessary to the life of the village, and in fact, the cars may be just as much a hindrance to the smooth flow of village life, as the village is to the flow of traffic. As ever, the best strategy is to relax and enjoy the attractions, and try to convince your driver to do the same. My drivers have always liked to Grand Prix through these slow downs as if they didn’t exist.

Daylight on the highways is manageable, but my friends continually cautioned me against driving at night. Of course it was bound to happen at least once, and once was all it took to convince me of my friends’ wisdom. Reggie and I were returning to Delhi from a trip to Rajasthan, and we skipped the last stop on our tour in an effort to get back to Delhi a day early. Night fell. The one good thing you can say about the highways at night is there’s very little traffic. I guess everyone follows the same advice. The danger was with the few vehicles that were on the road. They tended to be the decrepit, and the dangerous. The highways are really dark, with fairly long stretches between villages, and we were amazed by what our lights would pick up just in time to maneuver out of harms way: trucks with flats straddling both lanes without so much as a flashlight of illumination; slow moving camel-carts with no reflectors; goatherds moving their flocks from pasture to village, all in total disregard for anyone’s safety.

As for night time in the city: Rajiv told me that in Delhi your first assumption should be that if drivers are out after 9 pm they’re probably drunk. If you put that first then you can drive with the anticipation that the other guy is about to do something stupid; and you can drive drunk as well because the other drivers will be looking out for you in the same way.

Rajiv’s rules of the road didn’t provide much comfort.

You have to feel for Indian pedestrians. At rush hour they’re pushed further and further into the brush as scooters take over the foot paths. An American fellow I know fell off the side of an embankment as a car brushed past him, and caught himself on a ledge before the 20-foot drop below.

Just crossing a street is worse than an adventure. An adventure connotes some element of surprise. There’s no surprise when you step into a busy street – vehicles rule, and it’s up to you to avoid them rather than vice versa. The one city that seemed somewhat civil was Bangalore. Aravind explained the method for safe crossing: Try to get the driver’s eye, and then cross without altering your pace. It’s an unwritten that the driver will adjust his speed, but if you stagger or slow down you’re dead. Crossing becomes both a leap and an adventure in faith.

In Chennai, where water is at a premium, there are frequent pedestrian fatalities caused by tanker trucks. The municipal government runs 300 tankers that make 40 trips a day to the water supply and back out on their deliveries. That’s 12,000 runs, often in the pre-dawn hours. Water drivers are held to a schedule, and are under pressure to get their deliveries made on time. Consequently, they drive like the insane. A tanker carries about 12,000 liters, or 26,000 lbs., of sloshing water. Try stopping that for an unwary pedestrian.

International Trauma Care India reports that India accounts for 10% of world-wide traffic deaths, with one fatality every six minutes, and with traffic fatalities the third largest cause of death. As in all statistics-Indian, the reality is probably higher. I last tracked traffic deaths during a six month stay in Hyderabad. The metrics were updated whenever a fatality was reported. By mid-December the average was about three deaths per day. The fatalities were mostly pedestrians, scooters, or overloaded rickshaws. Pedestrians get picked off one-by-one, but you could loose four on a scooter, or more in a rickshaw. After a particularly awful accident the city government passed a law that a rickshaw couldn’t carry any more than six school children at a time, and the rickshaw drivers were out protesting as soon as the law passed. They thought nine was a number that wouldn’t cut into their profit margins. I don’t know if the issue was ever resolved – I think not.



The good news is that India’s modernization program has focused on the highway infrastructure. There’s no major city that hasn’t been disrupted with massive roadway improvement programs. Thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of workers have been deployed (including children wielding sledge-hammers, turning large rocks into small rocks,) widening roads and laying asphalt. The bad news is the improvement in traffic flow will be temporary at best. I think it’s an axiom of “highway science,” that improved roads invite more traffic, and so the infernal combustion engine will continue to suffocate India, death on the roadways will remain constant, and drivers will continue to resign themselves to at least a forty-five minute journey no matter how close the destination.




Funny though, the other day I was thinking about what I missed most about India, and I settled on missing the people, and the traffic – those forty-five minutes were highly entertaining, (when not life threatening,) and a respite of sorts.

A cab driver told me three things were essential to driving in India: a good horn, good brakes, and good luck. I’ve mentioned that to other drivers, and without fail they’ve chuckled and echoed the mantra even as I said it. None of them mentioned skill, though I must say all my drivers had a level of skill and sense of timing that would put Mario Andretti to shame.

I leave you with these instructions: “Sound Horn! Use Dipper at Night!”




(Many thanks to Amy Barr for letting me dip into her Indian photo collection.)

1 Comments:

Anonymous Brad said...

Nice summation of the Indian traffic experience. Have said it dozens of times, written the newspapers; the utter lack of regard for life and limb on these roads, the wild weaving in and out of lanes, the appalling cluelessness regarding elementary safety precautions, the abuse and childlike misunderstanding of what horns are for - it's astonishing, something that has to be seen and experienced to be believed. I've seen elderly women get run over on main roads, locals get plowed into by motorcyclists in suburban areas, kids at school crossings get their legs broken by impatient motorists. It's difficult to say which is more dangerous, trying to get somewhere by foot or on wheels. Each is a potentially deadly proposition. Nothing will be done about these conditions until the government tackles the problem head on, no pun intended. Therein's the rub, it isn't widely perceived as *being* a problem. Locals consider it all perfectly normal. Meanwhile the body count continues.

6:24 AM  

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