How to Drive in India

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We’ve been in India for a little over 2 months now, and while I have not driven a car here, I have managed to infer several “rules of the road” for prospective drivers. While the rules below are by no means a comprehensive list, I feel that they are sufficient to give the prospective driver a feel for what it’s like to drive here. Keep in mind that it takes a lot of subtle rules to keep the road systems moving here, as the narrow roads have to accommodate cars, trucks, motorcycles/scooters, bikes, auto-rickshaws, pedestrians, goats, cows, dogs, cats, monkeys, push carts, and urinating men, often all at once. So without further ado, the rules:

1. Adopt the Indian Driver’s motto

When he wrote the song “Big Pimpin’”, I don’t think Jay-Z set out to put into words the unofficial motto of all drivers in India, but he certainly succeeded in doing so. In order to drive in India, you must adopt the attitude that “I got no patience, and I hate waitin’”. This singular idea is at the root of every decision you will make as a driver in India. For example, you may think you know the correct way to drive along a winding stretch of road, but you are probably wrong. The correct way is best demonstrated by a visual aid:

Driving here is done on the left side of the road. Note that this is a two-lane, bi-directional road so there's only one lane for each direction of traffic.

Driving here is done on the left side of the road. Note that this is a two-lane, bi-directional road so there’s only one lane for each direction of traffic.

You see, taking the straight line path is fastest, satisfying the notion that “I got no patience, and I hate waitin’”, even though it takes you into oncoming traffic.

2. Use your horn

Driving in India without a horn is like trying to drive without a steering wheel – it’s that important. The horn’s uses are manifold:

  • To alert a car of your presence as you are passing it
  • To warn oncoming traffic that you don’t plan to stop, even though you’re in the wrong lane, because you’re in the process of passing someone
  • To alert a pedestrian of your presence as they walk along/across the road
  • To alert oncoming traffic of your presence as you approach a blind curve in the road (often in the wrong lane)
  • To inform those around you of your displeasure at being stopped for any reason (even legitimate reasons such as red lights)
  • To scare cows/goats/dogs off of the road

If you are driving in India and not using your horn at least once per minute, you’re probably Doing It Wrong.

3. Drive the fastest speed possible that doesn’t guarantee an accident, at all times

Notice that I didn’t say to avoid risking an accident – to drive in India is to risk an accident. Obviously, you must avoid guaranteeing an accident but otherwise, the only limit on your speed should be imposed by the laws of physics. Driving more slowly can sometimes lead to paradoxically dangerous conditions as large trucks attempt to pass you, force you off the road, or cut you off. If someone in front of you is driving slower than your vehicle is able to drive, pass them, and do it as soon as possible. Be sure to honk as you pass them, and don’t worry about swerving into oncoming traffic as you do so.

4. Avoid all potholes, regardless of how minor they may be

Braking to lessen the severity with which the pothole will jostle your vehicle is your last resort here, as it violates rule #3. Your first instinct should be to swerve, drastically and at the last minute if necessary, and without regard for whether you are swerving into oncoming traffic. Failing to avoid a pothole seems akin to bringing shame on your entire family – it’s simply not done or if it is, it’s never spoken of.

5. If you must stop for some reason, do so in such a way that you can return to driving as quickly as possible

Stopping is frowned upon, but sometimes you have to do it. For example, let’s say you’re a guy, you’re out driving around, and you need to urinate. What should you do? The answer is simple and flows from the notion that you “got no patience and hate waitin’”: you pull over, get out, and pee right on the side of the road. Not behind a bush, not behind a tree, not at a roadside restaurant or rest area – just right on the road.

Importantly, you don’t want your car to get too far off the road during this process. It’s best if you just stop right there in the lane you were driving in – other people will go around you. Don’t worry about them stopping to yell at you, they also “got no patience and hate waitin’” so the worst you’re in for is a honk and a shouted insult as they pass you. If nature calls just as you’ve gone around a tight corner or over a hill, no matter – stop anyway. Oncoming traffic coming around the corner or over the hill will avoid you, just like they avoid the potholes.

With these 5 rules, you’ll be able to successfully drive around India or at the very least you’ll have the tools you need to answer most questions you may have about how to drive in India. Whenever you are in doubt, remember rule #1: you got no patience, and you hate waitin’. Whatever the correct answer to your question is, it surely finds its foundation here. Good luck.

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