On an afternoon walk in an undeveloped forest area just outside of Jaipur this summer, I found a small souvenir of Indian technology: a hard-rubber scooter mudflap, with the words “Hamara Bajaj” and “Horn Please” molded on it.1 This is one of many examples I have seen of vehicles, or parts of vehicles, asking for the use of signaling devices. Variations on this theme include “Horn Do,” “Awaz Do” (“awaz” is Hindi for “sound” or “voice”), and “Use dipper [turn indicator] at night.”
Traffic on an Indian road may be chaotic, but it is not completely disorganized. There is an order—and it revolves around the use of the horn.
The sound of vehicle horns is the main element of the background noise of an Indian city. Horn sounds vary widely, from flat tones to trills to tunes. In most part of my home country, the United States, horns are mainly used in anger. My own Toyota Corolla has such a wimpy horn sound that I am embarrassed to use it. But in India, horns are used constantly as a signaling method. Vehicles tend to drive toward the center of roads, where the pavement is better. If a faster vehicle approaches from behind, the driver honks to announce his approach. If the way is clear, the slower vehicle honks back in response, then pulls over and sometimes waves the faster vehicle forward. Every type of vehicle takes part in this signaling system, because every form of transportation—from pedestrian on up—joins the traffic flow on the left side of the road.
Horns have other uses too. I was once in a taxi van when the driver overshot his turn off of the busy Tonk Road in Jaipur. Rather than circling around or finding a different route, he simply put his vehicle in reverse and backed up to his turn, blasting his horn all the way.
Traffic flow in India is more flexible than the regimented, linear procession of vehicles on most American roads. Lane lines and center-stripes, where they exist, are suggestions. A road with three marked lanes might have five lanes of traffic weaving in and out of each other. Except where solid medians prohibit it, traffic will often spill across the center-line onto the right side of the road. And even where a median is in place, it is not an impermeable barrier. If a scooter or rickshaw driver can negotiate a shortcut that will take him on the right side of the road, he will.
The point I want to make is that traffic customs in India work, even though they might seem chaotic and anarchical to a western (especially American) visitor. Traffic in India works by rules, which just happen to be more flexible than the rules in the West.
But let us not romanticize Indian traffic either. According to the World Health Organization, low- and middle-income countries—such as India—have considerably worse traffic safety records than high-income countries. More than 90% of the world’s traffic fatalities occur in these countries, even though these countries have less than half of the world’s vehicles.2 A comparison of the United States and India will show that, although the US has a slightly higher per-capita rate of fatal road accidents than India,3 the per-vehicle rate in India is much higher than in the United States. There are 145 traffic deaths for every 100,000 vehicles in India, compared to only 17 deaths for the same number of vehicles in the US.4
- “Hamara Bajaj” means “Our Bajaj”; it was a marketing campaign for the motor-scooters produced by the Indian industrial firm. Some of the Hamara Bajaj ads that aired on the state television network Doordarshan twenty years ago are now on YouTube. [↩]
- World Health Organization, “Global Status Report on Road Safety: Time for Action,” http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2009/en/. [↩]
- In 2006, there were 9 traffic deaths in India and 14 in the US, for every 100,000 people in each country. [↩]
- See the individual country profiles for India and the United States. [↩]