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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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