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Driving in Delhi

2003 Max Lent

Driving in Delhi

Driving in New Delhi India is something that someone else does.  It is a skilled profession that requires knowledge, dexterity, a quick reaction time, and a unique philosophical outlook.  I would not recommend that any westerner attempt to drive a car in Delhi until they have accompanied a driver for several weeks and until they go through a psychological transformation similar to becoming a Buddhist priest. 

Describing driving in Delhi is almost as difficult as doing it.  Superficially, it appears chaotic, but it isn't.  It looks dangerous and it is to some degree.  It looks lawless in that there seems to be almost now policing, but it is lawful in a grander sense.  It looks extremely antagonistic and aggressive and it is.  It is also more cooperative than any form of driving I have seen in Western or Latin countries. 

Rivers of cars, trucks, busses, motor scooters, elephants, cows, bicycles, three wheeled motorized rickshaws (Tuk Tuks), three wheeled pedaled rickshaws, and pedestrians flow forward.  Each of these entities shares a common objective, getting from one place to another.  How they accomplish their objective is shocking to Western drivers.  The sense of personal space for a vehicle is measured in inches, single digit inches.  At a stop, vehicles are within inches of each other in every direction, nearly touching.  When the time is right a cacophony of noise explodes.  Horns, of a wide range of tone and volume, blare.  Bicycle bells ring.  Motors are revved.  With a sudden lurch vehicles move forward, sideways, or don't move at all.  Some vehicles, such as the motorized three wheeled taxis and two wheeled motor scooters, turn off their engines to save wear and fuel.  Sometimes they don't start right away.  The vehicles behind honk, or make whatever noise they are capable of, in ever increasing intensity until the errant vehicle moves forward or is pushed off the road.  It would be easy to assume that road rage would soon set in and the drivers of the vehicles stuck behind the stranded vehicle would lash out in fits of road rage.  They don't.  My impression is that the noise is an encouragement to move on and nothing more.  It seems as though drivers know that sooner or later they will be stalled in the road.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this perceived attitude is based on a religious understanding of reincarnation. 

Once in motion, vehicles follow each other within inches.  Some, probably most, vehicles don't have taillights; break lights, headlights or any other kind of light.  Knowing and believing in the flow of the traffic can only anticipate that the vehicle in front is going to stop.  Fans of George Lukas's "Star Wars" movies and books will recognize this phenomenon as the "Force" that Luke Skywalker used when he attacked the "Death Star."  It is a state of mind that requires being conscious and letting the unconscious control one's actions.  In the West, we drive by a set of artificial and seemingly logical, rules that are strictly enforced.  Every other driver is assumed to know and follow those rules strictly.  There is so much trust in those rules that drivers go through intersections without looking both ways because they know that other drivers are not allowed to go through red lights.  In India, it is assumed that no driver will necessarily stop at any kind of intersection.  Intersections are assumed dangerous.  Drivers flash headlights and honk whenever they are coming to a suspicious intersection or driveway.  It appears that the first to flash or honk will have the right of way.  In some instances, both vehicles will assert right of way.  When this occurs, both drivers flash and honk with ever-greater rapidity and intensity.  Eventually, a dominant driver emerges.  The subordinate driver doesn't go away mad, they, with a shrug, go on to the next intersection.  They will become dominate at some other intersection.

An Indian friend explained to me that the legal system in India is slow and tedious.  Litigation, such as would arise from an auto accident, might take a decade or longer to resolve.  Assuming my friend's observations are correct, it is easy to imagine why Indian drivers might try to be careful rather than right.

Few cars in New Delhi have side mirrors.  Side mirrors would preclude the intimacy exercised between vehicles.  Those vehicles that do have side mirrors have a type that can be collapsed to fit snugly against the side of the vehicle.

There are auto accidents in India and they are often severe.  On returning to Rochester, NY I compared the number of accidents I saw daily on my five minute drive to and from work.  In Rochester, I saw accidents nearly every day on the several mile stretch of expressway I drove.  In New Delhi, I saw only one accident in my multi-week visit that included daily forays into Delhi traffic.

We never rented a car in India or Nepal.  Instead, we hired a car and a driver to take us where we needed to go.  Indian travel agents are good at arranging for cars, drivers, and guides.  The fees for such services are amazingly inexpensive.  They are often less than the rental fee for a mid-sized American car rental in a major city. 

Taxi's in New Delhi seem to exclusively belong to the Sikhs.  The taxi stands often have outdoor cots set up so that the drivers can sleep while they are waiting for clients.  Our experience with taxis was satisfactory.  Some of the cars were in worse repair than others, but we always got to where we wanted to go safely.  It is important to establish a price for your trip before you enter a taxi.  Bargaining seems the norm.  Taxis are not air conditioned.

Going from place to place via three wheeled motorized scooter (Tuk, Tuk) is much less expensive than taxis and a lot more adventurous.  You are exposed to the elements which includes a great deal of diesel fumes and weather.  Tuk Tuks look for every opportunity to move forward in traffic.  They cut between cars, buses, and trucks with great agility and much honking.  Western riders will experience white knuckles by the end of their ride.

Buses are out of the question.  They are crowded beyond western imagination.  Any woman, I was told by an Indian Woman, who gets on a public bus can be expect to be fondled, pawed, and pinched for the length of the ride. 

May the "Force" guide you to a car and driver.  Let go of your western ideas of safety and personal space.  Relax.  You will get to where you want to go and you will arrive safely.  Just don't watch.

More information on traveling in India

 


 
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