Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Traffic Anyone?

I don't think anything could have prepared me for the daily adventure that is Bengaluru traffic, and I've been in Mexico on a mountain pass without a guard rail watching a big rig run up the tailpipes of the van trying to pass us. I am only thankful of 2 things: 1) I spent a week in London so driving on the left isn't completely new and 2) I don't have to drive. I could tell on the ride from the airport to the hotel that driving here is just nuts. It is absolutely crazy. I really think that the only time the Indian people are in a rush is on the road. If there is an inch, someone is going to move into it. If you think about letting 1 person in, 10 people will follow. To cap it all off, everyday, rain or shine, is Ride on Texas weekend in Austin. Instead of Harley's and tricked out choppers with stitched leather seats and black lights, you have Hero Hondas, Pulsars, and mopeds deluxe. It is a frequent sight to see 10-20 2-wheelers (bikes and mopeds) traveling in a pack.

From what I can discern, there are only five traffic laws in India. I know there are more, but my daily journey's indicate that these are the five.

1) Thou shalt drive on the left side of the road. This is a hold-over from the British colony days (dating back to only the 1940s) as are the phrases 'to let' and 'boot'. Countless times I have ended up on the right side of the road passing other cars, auto-rickshaws, people, cows, street dogs, and just about anything you can imagine so this is just a suggestion unless there is a median in the road. The medians are lined up blocks about 12 to 18 inches high and some even contain a space of about 2 feet for trees or other plants. It is not uncommon to see someone going in the opposite direction to cut off some travel time.

2) Thou shalt stop at a red light. This may be the only traffic law that is strictly followed. The problem I have is that there is only 1 traffic signal every 100 intersections. Today I was in an intersection without a signal, and the driver mentioned 'circus'. You don't have to tell me. Every intersection without a signal is a 4-way enter-at-your-own-risk. Now, I will give India some credit. The traffic cops will wave you to the side of the road (because they don't have cars) and threaten you with a ticket if they see you running a light. It's only a threat since I've been told that bribery is a common theme when waved over by a khaki wearing 5-0 that spends his days standing at polluted intersections in the heat. I have noticed that there are no lines to stay behind. Since everyone is in a hurry, there are usually cars, 2-wheelers, and rickshaws (autos) hanging out in the intersection waiting on their turn to speed to the next jam.

3) Thou shalt wear a helmet when driving a 2-wheeler. But there are no regulations I can tell about what constitutes a helmet. I have seen full-on professional driving helmets, bicycle helmets, construction site hard-hats, early football helmets (remember the leather?), helmets that look like they came from the set of Chips, and skull caps. Now the rule is that the driver must wear a helmet. Since a 2-wheeler is the fastest mode of transportation, you mostly see 2 to 3 people or a whole family riding along. So I've seen a man driving wearing a helmet while his middle child sits in front of him, his eldest child between him and his wife riding side-saddle carrying the youngest. None of the other riders are wearing a helmet. You mostly do not see 5 people on a 2-wheeler but its quite a site to see a grown man wearing protection while none of his kids have the same. Maybe they're not in any danger since the fastest anyone goes is 40 km/hr if that and usually for only seconds at a time.

4) Thou shalt not drink and drive. I think this is rather explanatory. Given the climate in which these people drive, I can't imagine anyone thinking it would even be a viable option, especially if you're on a bike. Take a rickshaw, they're almost as dangerous, but you don't know if the driver has been drinking or not. I have seen the police set up check points and checking drivers randomly, having them pulled over to the side, and likely taking another bribe. I can't confirm this but I have not seen anyone hauled off to jail or placed in handcuffs.

5) Thou shalt not hit anybody as he who gets there first has the right-of-way. This is also pretty self explanatory as no one really wants to spend the rupees it would take to have your car or bike fixed, nor does anyone want to be at the center of argument. If there is any kind of argument here its like those days back in grade school when someone would yell 'FIGHT!' Whereas there are no punches thrown here (typically), 30-50 people will gather around in a close mass of bodies as if they are the jury hearing the arguments before a court and they are about to make the final decision. But as I said at the beginning, if there is an inch, someone will move into it. As such, he who gets there first has the right of way, and therefore, a 2-wheeler is the fastest mode of transportation due to its ability to maneuver through all the cars, autos, buses, and lorries stacked at every intersection or behind every road narrowing in town.

Given all of this and my stay here now going past 1 month, I have only seen 1 wreck. Oddly enough it was on my second full day in town. 15-20 bikes were pulling into our lane from an intersection and some poor Joe was clipped on the back wheel causing him to flip over on his side in front of another 100 vehicles chomping at the bit to move forward. The perpetrator kept on going as if nothing had happened. The unlucky chap had to peel himself, unhurt, off the ground, pick up his now turned around bike, and with an embarrassed look on his face get his bike back in motion. I had planned on getting some reading done in the taxi to and from work, but there is just no way. Everyday is a journey.

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