It Takes Nerves of Steel
It was 2002 and I was driving a VW Popup on a two-lane highway down the east coast of Italy. Suddenly, an oncoming car decided to pass. It was heading right at me. I veered to the right. The car being passed did the same. And the car doing the passing went on without issue. That’s when I realized that drivers in Italy turn two lanes into three at will.
Yes, driving is a cultural experience. Rules, obvious and surprising, determine the pace and patterns of traffic. It can be an incredible challenge but I can usually do it. Paris, New York, even the UK where I have to double-think everything as I drive on the other side of the road, are possible for me. Challenging, yes, but possible.
India is different. I would never take a car rental in India? No way. It takes nerves of steel to be a passenger there, let alone a driver.
Driving in India – the rules of the road.
The fundamental rule of the road in India is “move forward”.
If there is space ahead of you, move into it. If someone is between you and that space, honk. If moving forward requires you to go the wrong way down a street, go for it. Just keep moving toward your destination. No motion other than forward is acceptable.
The result looks like madness. Lanes mean nothing. Street signs are a waste of money. Traffic lights are ignored.
It makes no sense to a westerner. But, there must be an internal logic to it. Despite few cars without bumps and bruises, overall, it does seem to work.
But how does it work? There were so many occasions when an inch or two was all that came between the vehicle I was in and another. No seat belts to be worn. Apparently no priority to safety at all. And yet, I survived.
- Going up into the mountains near Rishikesh, our driver (whose car had no side mirrors and smelled terribly of diesel fuel) constantly passed other vehicles on hairpin turns. There were many transport trucks on this narrow road and, sure enough, on one turn we came face to face with one. The driver jammed on his breaks and our driver did the same. We came to a skidding stop about 3 inches from the front grill of the truck.
- In one of my first Tuk Tuk rides the driver was more concerned with making a call on his cell phone that watching the road that was, of course, packed with other Tuk Tuks. I yelled as we approached a man on a bicycle and a sharp turn to the left just avoided taking out the cyclist – again, within an inch or two.
- When I was leaving the town of Bundi, I left a bag behind at my hotel and only noticed half way to the train station. Fortunately, I always leave plenty of time for the unexpected. The driver went back to my hotel and picked up my bag. But, to make up time he took the highway to the train station rather than the roads. Massive transport trucks in the usual chaos were passing us. We were a very small vehicle; I felt like I was going to be squashed like a bug.
These are just three occasions. Just about every moment in a car on the roads of India required nerves of steel and a willingness to simply trust fate. Traveling, I often find myself in situations that just don’t meet the safety code that we have at home. Do I worry? No. There is no point.
By the way, it took a couple of days after my return before I regained the habit of wearing my seat belt in the car.