The unwritten rules of Indian roads

Rules passed on from driver to driver in the great oral tradition of India, followed by enlightened ones on our roads.

Came across an article about the worsening traffic situation in India. Badly planned roads, overstretched traffic police, violators get away easy, explosion in vehicle population, and a flood of untrained drivers all contribute to the problem.

Wait! There is one more reason; there are a set of unwritten rules that are passed on from driver to driver in the great oral tradition of India! Since this tradition is oral, there is ample scope for misinterpretation and consequent goof-ups on the road. The other unique aspect about these rules is that they don’t have to be consistently followed, just understood and acknowledged so that one is not caught unawares when more evolved drivers are following these rules!

All right then, so let me write the unwritten. Somebody has to do it. And maybe, just maybe, with a better understanding of these rules, our roads will become safer.

Unwritten Rule No 1: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!”
This rule has been created by a special breed of drivers who believe that right of way belongs to those who make the most noise. According to this rule, when one spies a slight opening in traffic that has bunched up ahead, adopt the following process: Place a heavy hand upon the horn and increase speed while leaning on the horn continuously and directing your vehicle towards the slight opening that may be available. It doesn’t matter whether the opening is on the left, right or middle of the road; this is not the time to wonder about your political leanings. Fully expect that the traffic ahead of you will part and give way; somewhat similar to what Moses achieved while parting the Red Sea. If there are some weak hearted souls in the cars ahead of you, they will squeeze a few more inches and make way for you. If not, you are not worse off, just wait until you spy the next opportunity to make the seas part.

Traffic jam. Pic courtesy: Wikimedia

URN 2: “My nose is in” or the “Water” Rule
This rule is specially designed for the likes of auto-rickshaws, scooters, motorcycles etc. It applies in situations such as traffic jams and permits these vehicles to push their nose in to any possible opening; doesn’t matter if it is only the nose that can be pushed in and also if the “pushing in” results in the auto/scooter facing a direction that is totally different from where the rest of traffic is headed. Once the gridlock is resolved, the auto / scooter can always straighten up and will have also gained a head start over lesser fortunate vehicles without a slender nose!
Note: This can be also termed as the “Water” rule because of the tendency of water to fill every possible orifice. A corollary of this rule is that it also allows vehicles to fill both sides of the road when there is a block ahead.

Pedestrian crossing. Pic courtesy: Wikimedia

URN 3: “Hand Is Up” or “I have the power”
This rule, for a change, is meant to give pedestrians some relief in a system that treats them shabbily otherwise. It allows any member of the walking public desirous of crossing the road, especially at a traffic junction, to raise his hand in the direction of traffic in a commanding manner and proceed to cross the road (at times leading a flock of other people) while directing contemptuous glances at the cars that have screeched to a halt in response to the raised hand. A note of caution however, timing and style are very important while executing this maneuver. It is recommended that people observe other skilled practitioners and try this out at low-speed junctions before moving on to junctions with a higher degree of difficulty.

What used to be “pehle aap” in old-fashioned Lucknow has become “pehle hum” all over India, including Lucknow.

URN 4: “I Flashed You First”
No, this doesn’t mean what you are thinking. This refers to a unique inversion of graciousness in Indian culture. What used to be “pehle aap” in old-fashioned Lucknow has become “pehle hum” all over India, including Lucknow. This rule is inspired by the gun-fighters last seen in good ole “Westerns” where it was a matter of life and death to be quick on the draw. The gun has been replaced by headlight indicator. The rule states that when confronted with oncoming traffic and a narrow passage through which only one can pass, right of way belongs to the one who flashes his headlight first – the other person has to come to a screeching halt, all other factors are irrelevant. It is worth mentioning that in the gunfight analogy, the person slow to draw his gun is likely to pay with his life (unless the first guy misses!). However, in this case, the person slower on the draw also has the democratic option of carrying on regardless and taking someone else out along with him.

URN 5: “One Way, No Way”
Did you think the “One Way” sign with the arrow pointing in only one direction (I have seen one pointing towards a wall) really mean that traffic can flow in only that direction? Wrong. It usually means “one way” only when a traffic official is looking. Of course at times the official chooses a vantage point and lies in wait for the unsuspecting motorist and some easy money. But there is a twist here. If the one-ways are enforced too strictly by the official, then the opportunity for economic advancement dries up – nobody will try to go the wrong way. Therefore it should be possible to break the one-way rule with a reasonable probability of success so that people will continue to go the wrong way. This then leads to unwritten rule no 5; expect traffic to come from any direction, one way street or no one-way street.

The enterprising driver, in his bid to contribute to national saving by conserving fuel and time, will merrily proceed against the traffic until he spots an opening in the divider and cuts across to join the rest of his flock.

URN 6: “You Divide I Rule”
This rule is born out a combination of an individual’s desire to save time and money and the traffic department’s absurd (or so many think) desire to install dividers/medians that separate traffic heading in opposite directions. The enterprising driver, in his bid to contribute to national saving by conserving fuel and time, will merrily proceed against the traffic until he spots an opening in the divider and cuts across to join the rest of his flock. Needless to say, many times the opening in the divider is created by private enterprise, who have their own pressing reasons to alter the design of the road planners. Therefore, as in rule 5, expect traffic from all directions even on a divided highway. What is more, expect random vehicles to cut across you at right angles to take advantage of fortunate opportunities that have sprung up overnight.

URN 7: “Let’s cross that hump when we get to it!”
One of the dangers of driving long-distance on the interstate network in the western countries, is of falling asleep at wheel. The sheer tedium of driving on predictable roads with unchanging scenery for hours on end can lead one to a comfortably numb state and consequent sleepiness. We know that, don’t we? So did our road planners and a host of other well wishers. We therefore have the ubiquitous speed breaker or road hump, also known as the “sleep” breaker. The official ones that exist (with or without warning signs) are supplemented by a host of un-official ones, erected by well-meaning agencies such as the water supply department, any entity that needs to lay cable, and even by individuals who dislike the modern quest for speed! Any driver, who shows signs of succumbing to the wiles of Morpheus, will soon enough be subjected to a jolt that will shake him up and keep him honest for the rest of the drive. The side-effect, however, even for those who remain wide-eyed and awake, is that these “sleep” breakers come up without any warning leading to a muffled (if others are also in the car) expletive, sudden application of the brakes and an overall shaken and stirred effect for all the people in the car. Rule 7, examine the surface of the road keenly all the time or wear a helmet inside the car!

URN 8: “The Ambulance Chasers”

There is an opportunist in every human being, and one man’s crisis can become another’s opportunity. Take the case of an ambulance rushing someone to hospital. The lot of an ambulance, even with its siren turned on, making way through traffic is not an easy one. When traffic is jammed, it is total – not even a cycle could push its way through (For reasons, see the “Water” rule). So the ambulance has to wait until there is a happy coincidence of forward movement and benevolent drivers that create conditions for it to progress. The evolved driver, senses opportunity in such an event. He makes way for the ambulance, and immediately latches onto the rear and drives through the traffic with inches between him and the ambulance. An undesired side effect to this technique is that one may end up where the ambulance finally stops. However, good “chasers” know that too much of a good thing is too bad and break away from the chase at an appropriate time. The rule, watch out for the convoy behind the ambulance!

If you leave things alone long enough, they will sort themselves out. It is exemplified by the situation one encounters at manned level crossings where traffic on both sides piles up waiting for the train to cross.

URN 9: “Make your own road”
There are times when every inch of the available tarmac on the legal road is taken over by transport of all descriptions (refer Water Rule again). This is when the spirit of derring-do and adventure is born within a section of the driving population. This section, two-wheeler drivers generally, hoist their machines onto the sidewalk and proceed forthwith until they meet with the next obstacle / challenge. The fact that the sidewalk is meant for pedestrians becomes irrelevant, pedestrians are warned by frequent honking and forced against the walls or into available recesses until the storm blows over. The traffic caste system takes over the sidewalk – bus higher than car, car higher than motor-cycle, motor-cycle higher than cycle, and everybody higher than the pedestrian. This is a rule that the pedestrian should be aware of, especially since there still remain a large majority who naively believe that sidewalks are the exclusive domain of pedestrians.

URN 10: “Laissez-faire – Let It Be!”
This rule relies on the inherent optimism of the human race and the belief, shared by some of our politicians, that if you leave things alone long enough, they will sort themselves out. It is exemplified by the situation one encounters at manned level crossings where traffic on both sides piles up waiting for the train to cross. The general approach in such cases is for traffic, on either side of the crossing, to fill up both sides of the road. Once the crossing is opened up, there is a mad scramble to get back on to the designated side of the road. This needs advanced skills in positional play, complicated maneuvers, and is accompanied by constant honking and delivery of unsolicited advice to other drivers. And sure, enough, things usually sort themselves out before the next train arrives and the whole process starts again. This rule therefore requires one to trust the wisdom of a higher consciousness and join merrily in the festival atmosphere until one reaches the other side, sometimes a few hours later. If the train arrives again while you are still on the track, it is fated – there is nothing you could have done about it!

As you may now have realized, this rule is also an over-arching principle that governs everything else while driving in India. Enjoy the drive!

On a serious note…The road traffic situation in India is really grim and nothing to laugh about. We need serious action and we need it now. I quote the following from the NYT article dated June 8th, 2010;

“India overtook China to top the world in road fatalities in 2006 and has continued to pull steadily ahead, despite a heavily agrarian population, fewer people than China and far fewer cars than many Western countries…..

A lethal brew of poor road planning, inadequate law enforcement, a surge in trucks and cars, and a flood of untrained drivers have made India the world’s road death capital….

As cars increase, those who cannot afford them and continue to travel on foot, bicycle or rickshaw are more vulnerable, safety experts say. Dr. Mathew Varghese, the head of St. Stephen’s orthopedics department, said he saw hundreds of patients a year like Shivani. The government is building “economic growth on the dead bodies of the poor on these highways,” he said.”

Full article is here.


  1. S Srinivasan says:

    Very well written article. If the Govt looks into these problems and set right the things with application of mind and technology, there will be no need to widen any road in our city of concrete. The more you widen the road, all the problems stated in the article will be multiplied . The pollution will go beyond control , the chaos will be multiplied etc. This article should make everyone think whether they are the cause for such chaos and how & when such attitude of selfishness will be stopped by every road user for benefit of all others.

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