Technology, History, and Place

Tag: safety


Motorcycles in the Ghat ki Gooni, Jaipur.

Motorcycles in the Ghat ki Gooni, Jaipur.

Media in the car-saturated West—especially in the USA—have watched with some hand-wringing as the middle classes of large Asian countries such as China and India have increasingly been buying cars. At least in India, though, cars have so far failed to catch on to the extent that they did a century ago in the USA. What have caught on are two-wheelers: motorcycles and motor scooters. The profusion of two-wheelers in India hasn’t attracted much attention in the West, but I believe it has had a bigger influence in making India the country it is today.

Seven years ago, I spent my first sojourn in India at a school in the rural East Garo Hills district of Meghalaya. All of the teachers lived in the campus compound. Out of twenty-off families, only two had any sort of personal mechanized transportation: the principal had a car (a Maruti 800), and one of the teachers had a Bajaj motor scooter. Everybody else got around by walking, catching buses on the other side of the river, piling into the school sumo when it went to market, or bumming rides from the one teacher with a scooter.

Five years later, when I went back to Meghalaya to visit, there was only one family that didn’t have a scooter or motorcycle, and the others were asking when they would get one too. One of the teachers who now rode everywhere on his motorcycle spoke wistfully of the old days when everybody used to walk all the time.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when Americans first started buying cars in large numbers, optimistic car advocates claimed that automobility would usher in a new democratic age, when citizens could drive wherever they pleased, free from the tyranny of the railroads. Although cars did lead to new dependencies—on oil companies, tire companies, and of course the auto manufacturers themselves—cars did allow Americans to be more mobile than ever before.

Something similar is happening in India, except more with scooters and motorcycles than with cars. Thanks to scootermobility, residents of both city and country can go more places with more ease than ever before. Whole families pile onto single bikes to go on picnics. Teenagers and twenty-somethings escape the parental gaze to hang out in waste areas or old ruins on the edge of town.

Alongside the perks, scooters and motorcycles also come with many of the same pitfalls as cars, such as polluted skies and people who never walk anywhere anymore. There are also three shortcomings that aren’t shared by cars, which should give the builders of 21st-century India pause. The first is minimal safety protections. Motorcycles can go as fast as cars, but they have no room for crumple zones or roll bars. A seatbelt on a motorcycle would not do anyone any good. Second, two-wheelers have the loudest, shrillest horns of any vehicles. On any given day, they do more to create urban India’s noise pollution problem than anything else. And third, two-wheelers can insinuate themselves into places that cars could never go, thus endangering pedestrians and generally trampling cities in new ways. The pleasant pedestrian promenade at Connaught Place in New Delhi becomes not so pleasant when you constantly have to worry about getting run over by a scooter.

Motorcycles waiting at a light on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Jaipur.

Motorcycles waiting at a light on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Jaipur.

Horn Please

“Hamara Bajaj” - mudflap for a Bajaj scooter.

“Hamara Bajaj” – mudflap for a Bajaj scooter.

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

  1. “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. []
  2. World Health Organization, “Global Status Report on Road Safety: Time for Action,” http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2009/en/. []
  3. In 2006, there were 9 traffic deaths in India and 14 in the US, for every 100,000 people in each country. []
  4. See the individual country profiles for India and the United States. []

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