How to Drive on India’s Roads


I’ve been at the wheel, driving on many roads in recent times, swallowing kilometers and miles in the process, which has helped me gain an inside view — imagine seeing ping-pong balls the size of footballs — of the mind of a driver, on the treacherous roads of India. The rule-breaking and errors that people make in driving is egregious, which is visible in the record-breaking accidents on India’s roads; from the infamous road-rages of Northern India’s Delhi, to rash driving, down South; from the great asphalt-laden city roads to the dust-flying village roads, you have a width of stories to tell, and miles to write!

The simple Rules of the Road are ‘black-hole aliens’ to most people in India, who just don’t give a damn: Lane driving; following road signs & signals; flashing turn-indicators (No hand signal, please); loading vehicles ‘many tons’ over the limit, entire families – of between three and five, or more, riding on two-wheelers; using the rear view and side mirrors; and respecting the Rules… are at best ‘differentiation & integration equations’ on paper. People drive with the one clear objective of moving from point A to point B, as soon and as selfishly as possible, and without waiting a second…mind it!

I’ll break speed here, park ‘normal road rules’ aside and ride the National Highways to explain ‘road sense’, in driving. I find that most people, beyond a basic level, do not know (or have forgotten) finer aspects of road discipline, designed to keep them safe — on and off the road. A friend of mine living in the US and visiting India, remarked, ‘Kumar, you know you are alive only when you safely return Home, in one piece!’ I would add: from a killing (and thrilling) adventure on the roads of India.

We are up to the brim with education, so much that we fail to learn and apply much of what we’ve read! This is an attempt to make you a ‘learned one’ on driving on India’s roads, and refresh at a pit-stop: often we take so much for granted that it pays to make a backward glance, to re-learn, which might help us focus better when driving. The multiple Government websites offering ‘Road Rules’ information might be awfully confusing and seemingly complex.

I’m not driving into the universal road signals of, Red, Amber/Orange and Green, which I’m sure you know only too well. I would say, Red is a Full Stop; Orange is an Exclamation or maybe a Question Mark — wake up, get ready! (take a deep breath); and Green has no punctuation, at all! This is going to be a long drive; fasten your seat belts. Here we go.

India drives on the left-hand side of the road, with a right-hand drive vehicle — where the steering wheel is on the right-hand side. Countries like Britain, Japan, Australia drive like us. The USA drives on the right-hand side with a left-hand drive vehicle (which might explain Donald Trump’s behavior — always on the wrong side!)

Lets first lean-in to the definitions: A lane is part of a road that is designed for movement of a single line of vehicles in any one direction. Multiple lanes are provided, on wider roads and expressways, to spread traffic, guide and control drivers, and reduce traffic conflicts.

Lanes are marked by ‘war–paint’: white paint on the black asphalt in the form of solid or continuous lines. Yellow is also used, for better visibility.

A two-way, two-lane road is one that allows driving in both directions but may not be wide enough, in many places, to allow vehicles to pass/overtake one another. Normally, a two-lane road has only one lane in each direction, and usually no median barrier and may be divided by a single or double white or yellow lines, which in turn may be solid or broken.

A four-lane highway has two lanes for driving in either direction, divided by a clear median barrier or an island (often we find goats, buffaloes and cows tethered here, for keeping the grass in its place!). Similarly defined are six-lane or other multi-lane freeways or expressways.

On entering an Highway on a four-wheeled car, the correct thing to do would be to keep left — on the extreme left lane and drive at a speed within that indicated by the speed limit indicator signs (if any) on the Highway (else push your memory — we normally have a speed limit of about 60 to 100km/hr). When you come upon a vehicle moving ahead and you wish to overtake/pass you may do so carefully from the immediate right side lane; you may ‘wake up’ the Driver ahead with a mild warning blow of your horn or by flashing& dipping your head-lights, at night (whether the guy actually sees you at all, is another story). Pass over as quickly as you can, and gradually get back to the lane you just left behind. This is to allow other drivers, driving faster than you, to overtake on your right side.

Once you are safely driving in your lane you will notice a thick solid white continuous line on your left marking the the edge of the road, and perhaps a little more of the asphalt road before it meets the brown dirt or green grass of the Earth. This narrow lane is meant exclusively for two-wheelers and they are not allowed to get into your lane, nor should you into theirs. If instead of a solid white line you see a solid yellow line, on the edge, it means you are not allowed to stop and park on the sides of roads thus marked.

Driving on, if it’s a six lane Highway it’s best to stick to the middle lane allowing slow-moving vehicles to snail along on your left and fast moving ‘cheetahs’ to overtake on your right. If it’s a four lane Highway just stick to the extreme left lane. If you decide to take a right turn or a U-turn you should cautiously move to the extreme right lane using your flashing indicator lights and wait for the signal at the intersection.

What do the various kinds of ‘War Paint’ (that’s my name for them) — lines painted on the road, mean?

On a two-lane, two-way road if you see a single or two parallel continuous white lines — called a barrier line — at the center, dividing the lanes, you should not overtake in this area; if you see a broken line it means you can ‘break the line’ and pass in the marked area. Broken white lines are generally lane separators and though it’s best you always stick to one lane you may consider promoting yourself on the road. Sometimes you might see a broken white line changing to a solid white line, where it means you should not overtake in the solid line area.

Right of way: While approaching an intersection always give the right of way to vehicles already moving on the road. In other instances you should proceed only after giving way to vehicles approaching from the right side of the road. Pedestrians always have the right-of-way at pedestrian/zebra-crossings, that are not controlled by a Traffic Signal. This means if you are driving on a Highway, and up ahead you see a person step-on a marked zebra-line crossing, you just cannot honk him out of your way (or think you have the right to mow him down); you have to slow-down or even stop, wait for him to cross and then drive on. Respect the pedestrian at all times — he fully owns the zebra crossings: no questions!

A double yellow line painted in the middle of a two-way road should never ever be crossed.

If you spied a single yellow line next to a broken yellow line, and if you are driving on the side of the solid line you cannot overtake and if you are driving on the side of the broken line (on your right) you can overtake/pass-over.

Broken white lines indicate that you may change lines overtake or make a U-turn.

A Stop line is a transverse line painted before the intersecting line — better start seeing this line as often as you can!

Yellow box junctions, diagonal crossed lines: Vehicles should cross only if the driver sees a clear space ahead of the box; you cannot stop, even momentarily, inside the box — keep moving!

Bump-to-Bumper distance: Keep a safe distance, say 1 to 1.5m (metre), from the vehicle in front – You may have to adjust this distance in keeping with the culture of the area you are driving-in. The single most cause of many accidents is due to the driver in front suddenly braking and you being ‘unable to control’ spilling into his rear. The consequences maybe humorous, though! Always make a quick glance on your rear view mirror before applying the brakes — whether you do it suddenly (best avoided) or gradually, and make sure your brake-lights light up red, so that the driver behind you, at your tail, knows that you are slowing down or stopping.

Honking: It’s best you don’t use this at all, and always to a bare minimum. While in Puerto Rico on a over six month job assignment I got myself a Learner’s License — for driving to work, and used the opportunity to drive around the pretty Island (long before Hurricanes snaked–in), on the weekends, and to consciously follow Road Rules (being in a foreign Country you would like to be on the right side of the law). This phase of my life taught me to shut-down the impulse to honk, which I dutifully carried with me back to India; where you are considered crazy if you do not use the horn. I would say keep you paws off the ‘sound horn’ and use it only to alert someone on the wrong.

A word about speed-breakers — those irrational, ugly humps on the road: The Indian Road Congress specifies, among other things, that a speed-breaker should be 3.7m in width and 0.10m in height and should be clearly painted and marked with warning indicators. But, this is never the case and people freely break the Rules making their own speed-breakers, in their own localities (not permitted on the Highways). You should try your best to get them down to specification or removed altogether; complain to the police; sound the local community; whatever, do your best to contribute to a cause.

A suggestion to the Government: It’s time that the Government(s) at the Centre and at the State assiduously and religiously enforce already written-down Road Rules — so strictly that we start thinking about how to change them, for the better. Introduce Highway Patrols — populate all Highways with Traffic Cops for a month — to teach & correct Drivers; then give them another month’s time to learn and absorb; and after that, in the third month, impose on-the-spot stiff fines for every rule broken! Other suggestions would be: Ruthlessly evict all illegal ‘road space hustlers; introduce world-class signage and warnings. ’If we can bring military discipline on India’s roads, we will suddenly discover that we have the widest, longest and best roads anywhere in this part of the world. Lets do it!

At the end, you might feel overwhelmed following all these Rules, to the book, as the irrepressible Truck Drivers hug the extreme right lanes and also hijack the extreme left lanes forcing you to snake your way across to your destination — hopefully without spitting venom! But then, we got to start some where and Democracy works best only when everyone practices self-discipline and makes an effort to do better than the rules.

Finally, always give the right-of-way to Ambulances — you might just save a life. Driving is an activity which requires mindfulness, your fullest attention — give it. With a New Year looming up ahead in the distance make a, ‘I-Will-Strictly-Follow-Road-Rules’ resolution. Merry Christmas — give Santa’s Reindeer driven Sledge a right-of-way in the skies, and wishing you a Happy New Year 2018.




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