I live in the U.S. state of California, in the San Francisco Bay area. California has many amusement parks with giant roller coasters and exciting thrill rides. I have ridden on many of the most exciting and most thrilling of these rides, but none can compare with a ride through Indian traffic in an auto rickshaw. You don’t have to tell the driver to hurry, because he will always drive as fast as traffic allows. And if you ask him to slow down he will only wonder what the problem is.
Once, while driving to the hotel in Chennai, our auto rickshaw driver suddenly swerved to the left to pass a large bus. No sooner had he cleared the back of the bus but we found ourselves traveling at high speed into the path of an ox cart with two zebu headed straight toward us traveling on the “wrong” side of the road. Our driver made a quick course correction and managed barely to squeeze between the ox cart and the front of the bus, avoiding a disastrous collision by mere centimeters.
On another occasion, in Chennai, we were walking to a restaurant late at night. Needless to say, traffic was buzzing through the intersection as if it were rush hour in the middle of the day. After what seemed like ages, the street light turned red for the cross traffic and green for us, but the traffic did not stop. It just kept whizzing by, offering no opportunity for us to cross. Then, as if by magic, the flow stopped and we started to cross the street. Then, just as suddenly, the stopped vehicles grew impatient and started up again with us still in the middle of the street, looking with wonder and amazement at the still green light. Somehow, we managed to dodge the passing autos, motorcycles, trucks and rickshaws and got to the other side safely. With a large collective sigh of relief, we were able to enjoy a peaceful meal and a well-deserved Kingfisher beer at a nice restaurant.
I now realize that Indians and Americans approach driving from entirely opposite frames of mind. In the U.S., drivers drive so as not to be hit by another vehicle. We leave plenty of room between our car and the car in front of us. We stay inside the lane markings and we never honk our horn unless it is a real emergency or to prevent an accident. In fact, driving on top of a lane marker and honking one’s horn is quite illegal and will result in a hefty fine if witnessed by a traffic cop. Also, it is fair to say that stop signs, yield signs and traffic lights are found on almost every intersection in the U.S., whereas such traffic controls are quite rare in India.
Unlike the American mindset, in India the idea is not to hit another vehicle (or cow or pedestrian). Therefore, one drives however one wishes, and it is the responsibility of all the other drivers to not collide with other cars. Whereas in the U.S. one honks only in an emergency to avoid a collision, in India the idea is to honk as often as necessary to alert other drivers and pedestrians that you are there so they can avoid running into you.
The result is a constant cacophony of beeps and toots, and vehicles driving every which way in the road, giving the appearance of chaos, but with an underlying order that somehow prevents collisions and allows everyone to get where they want to go, safely and in a timely fashion.
I will recommend a ride in an auto rickshaw to all my thrill-seeking friends when I return the U.S.
James R. Ziegler
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