Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

The Cars That Ate India, December 2008/January 2009

The Cars That Ate India

December 2008/January 2009

Soundtrack:

‘My Car Doesn’t Brake’ – The Spazzys

‘Accident Waiting to Happen’ – Billy Bragg

‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ – David Bowie

‘Flash and Crash’ – Rocky and the Riddlers

‘Beep Beep’ – The Playmates

‘Big Accident’ – Do Re Mi

‘Brand New Car’ – Rolling Stones

‘Cars’ – Gary Numan

‘Dead Man’s Curve’ – Jan and Dean

‘Who Would Love This Car But Me?’ – Brian Setzer

Indian vehicular road traffic is impossible to ignore or dismiss, and is somewhat cause for substantial anxiety for the uninitiated – or the ‘deer in the headlights’.

Our experiences on this trip of drivers using horns unnecessarily have previously been noted. Yet, again, it is in India that things are taken to an extreme. Toot when you stop, beep when you’re going, honk because everyone else is. Don’t slow down and look around a corner to see if there is another car/scooter/cart/goat/child in the way; put your foot to the floor and your hand in the centre of the steering wheel. It is loud, cacophonous, interminable and, overall, totally superfluous, as, because everyone else is doing it, honking has no effect whatsoever. Motor-scooters have had louder car horns fitted, trucks now blast ear-piercing musical air-horns of an endless variety. The incessant din commences before dawn and only slightly diminishes very late into the night. This bizarre phenomenon has had an unfortunate response from drivers, as now nobody adheres to any perceived or pretend road rules or gets out of the way unless they get honked. This means that vehicles might be coming towards you on the wrong side of the road, or gliding through a red light, and they will not deviate from their course unless they are tooted at. And even then, it’s a two-way bet – either they will or they won’t.

One local NGO, the Earth Savers Foundation, tried in vain to name this past New Year’s Day as “No Honking Day”, yet, predictably, was as successful as potentially trying to institute a “Men’s No Spitting Day”. Buckley’s.

However, we could only laugh at our final Indian beeping experience – on the tarmac at Indira Gandhi Airport, New Delhi, when we took a bus from the gate lounge to the aircraft, at night, with no other people, beasts or vehicles within cooee of us. What did the bus driver do? Honk his horn the entire way. “Oy – Boeing 737 – coming through!”

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(Pic: Why doesn’t that elephant indicate?)

Anecdotes aside, though, the notorious Indian road traffic that would make Kamikaze pilots blush was the main reason why we didn’t ship our truck here. While I am reasonably confident of my own driving ability, it was the other drivers that made us anxious. And we think our decision was vindicated. Interestingly, unlike, say, Albania, Indian drivers aren’t aggressive in their quest for reaching their destination. Few speed, as most vehicles and road conditions won’t let them, and we saw little hostility between fellow gallivanting road-gamblers. What we did experience was thousands of drivers taking colossal risks, almost in slow-motion, ostensibly without a care in the world. It was like watching a bad commercial television program about car crashes. The only thing missing was the “doinnnngggg” sound effects and laugh track. Drivers would roll through red lights without so much as a glance in either direction, and overtake on soft-shoulders that would disappear into market stalls, rickshaws, animals or groups of people. Overtaking on the correct side of the road would be executed slowly in fourth or fifth gear and would seem to take decades, all in hope that the vehicles coming towards you would get the hell out of the way or stop, that that buffalo wouldn’t want to indeed cross the road, or that the jalopy you were trying to pass didn’t have the same idea at that very moment, which it often did.

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(Pic: When too much cargo is barely enough)

One truism I do recall from those soporific science classes at school was that nature abhors a vacuum, and the theory was certainly proved by Indian traffic. No matter if lanes were marked on the road, if space was made available for pedestrians crossing or if there was actually room available or not, every conceivable vehicle would fill an intersection at every angle and opportunity in a excessive effort to get closer to the other side. What drivers didn’t seem to appreciate was that extraction from gridlock usually took an era longer than potentially waiting patiently for the lights to change (if they worked) or the traffic policeman to wave you through (ditto). And, of course, while stuck in a phalanx of mechanised mess the only thing to do is honk yer horn for all it’s worth. Encore ad nauseam. And so we became accustomed to the Sea of Means of Transport that went nowhere fast in a fug of smoke and honk.

There were some vehicles that seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. No, not the emergency vehicles that seemed to amble along at a rather measured pace. These were rather large, white Mahindra Scorpio four-wheel-drives, and they always had a horn permanently engaged and always had their lights on high-beam. They screamed along on the wrong side of the road and expected everyone to get out of the way.

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(Pic: These seats come with air-con, Jaipur)

And others did, for as it was explained to us, they were politicians, and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of an Indian politician. So, setting a good example, they screamed off into the sunset, their drivers wide eyed and their bodyguards armed with long, prehistoric rifles.

There were some stretches of road in rural India that were, surprisingly, rather vacant and, being recently constructed (in anticipation of that familiar global Messiah, the Large International Sporting Event that will, we are all convinced, Change Everything For The Better, For Ever – in this case the 2010 Commonwealth Games) was wide, flat and smooth, with lane markings and everything! This made us wish we were driving ourselves, in our own truck, and not depending on our Johnny-come-lately sitting too close to the dashboard, riding the clutch like a fifty cent amusement park ride and attempting to keep hold of the vehicle like a dodgy shopping-trolley. Indian drivers seemed to be as blasé as they perhaps are incompetent, naïve or ignorant of what their cars were capable of doing, what they should do, and what happens if it’s not done properly. A famously devout people, driving in India seemed to be part hand-foot-eye co-ordination and part prayer.

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(Pic: No, really, there’s heaps of room. All aboard!)

Indian drivers also introduced us to an innovative method of protecting their cars’ side mirrors from damage by driving too close to other cars, animals or other objects that just seem to jump out at you – like buildings, for instance. Drivers simply folded the mirrors in or removed them altogether. Naturally this means that you can’t see what’s happening behind you – like, say, if another vehicle is hurtling towards you when you want to pull out from the curb – but then you just pray that everyone and everything else just gets out of the way or vaporises.

Car ownership in India has gone through the roof in only a couple of years, and, without a substantial history of car culture or driving, adequate roads or a concerted effort to ensure drivers are licensed, competent or road rules are adhered to – if they indeed exist – the results are appalling. More that 100,000 people lose their lives on Indian roads every year, with over 1.5 million people seriously injured. India is home to one per cent of the world’s vehicles, but accounts for more than six per cent of the world’s total road accidents. The World Health Organisation has predicted that, by 2020, road accidents will be the major killer in India accounting for 546,000 deaths and almost unpredictable levels of injury and disability. And, like our experience in Albania, you would think that the gruesome twisted metal of cars and trucks of yore that almost serve as shrines to those recently departed would get people thinking about it. No such luck.

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(Pic: Well, we’re trying to leave, Delhi)

Leading the historic charge in the average Indian’s dream of owning a set of wheels is the Hindustan Ambassador – affectionately known as the ‘Amby’, but perhaps this should be changed to the ‘ambo’. Originally based on the British Morris Oxford, this car has been produced continuously since 1957 and little has changed since that time. Plusses: rather cute, somewhat stately, historically significant, spare parts available everywhere, almost bomb-proof. Minuses: safety equipment suspiciously absent, handles like a wounded elephant. In fact, rear seat belts are a rare luxury item in most cars available in India, as are disc brakes. Air bags and ABS are unheard of. Some of our drivers would chuckle as they would turn to gesticulate towards us while announcing that we didn’t have to wear seat belts, all the while sliding across lanes, one hand firmly on the horn.

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(Pic: Have Ambi, will travel, Delhi)

But since the heyday of the Ambi the cheap, and often nasty, Asian imports, and often Indian-built Asian rattlers, have given locals a taste for something that seemed more modern and attainable, but not necessarily more reliable or overall useful. And, leading the charge of the small car turned mobile roller-coaster carriage is the Tata.

Tata is India’s largest company with fingers in manufacturing, construction, communications, media, tourism, finance, transport, food and beverages, education, health, power (the electrical kind, but yes, that too) – you name it. And Tata verily told all Indians: “Yea, you too can own and drive a car of your own,” and the $2,500 Nano – effectively a flimsy bar-fridge welded to a skateboard – was born and foisted upon the great people of Hindustan, and now they all cheer with glee as they clamour to clog up the roads and do themselves and others significant injury. Add to this the Murato Suzuki and a few other bendy, skiddy sardine cans and you have an entire country of wall-to-wall buzz-boxes with no room to move, and when they do, there is hell to pay. All in all, Indian car ownership is increasing at a rate of about twelve per cent a year, and already with catastrophic social, health and environmental consequences. Even now the dense fog that is grounding air traffic and grinding land-based traffic to a standstill (as we would soon discover) is being largely blamed on ever-increasing smog caused by increased car traffic.

Add to this equation cycle- and auto-rickshaws, scooters, bicycles, carts and beasts and it seems the entire country is wall-to-wall meandering, because this is the way of the future.

And the carnage continues.

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(Pic: Where’s the seat belt?, Agra)

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2 Comments»

  auntiefranny wrote @

Woah!! I’m exhausted just reading that.
Can’t imagine what it must be like.. Great reading as always, stay safe.

lots of love Fran xxx

  Hilary wrote @

yet another reason i plan to stay out of india. i’m relieved for the traffic warning you received which prompted your wisdom to leave the dodgem game to the locals. i wonder what impact your time in india will have on your perception of indians here in oz? guess that question might apply to people of many nations who struggle to transplant themselves following migration. but enough with the armchair philosophising.
i see the homestretch looming.
h


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