Context-Driven Driving

I know how to drive. I have a lot of experience as a driver. I’ve been a driver for 17 years or so. For me, driving has become easy. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean very much. I have no experiences with stunt driving, NASCAR, or big rigs. Still, until recently I thought I had “ordinary driving” down as pat as it gets.

Then I visited Bangalore, India. I didn’t drive in Bangalore, but as a passenger on fourteen taxi trips, I got to observe driving techniques. What I saw there changed my notion of what is safe driving, because of the cognitive dissonance between my “proven safe” driving rules and the fact that near constant violation of those rules by everyone on the streets seems to lead to far fewer accidents than I would expect.

Here’s how it goes in Bangalore:

  • Buses, trucks, smaller trucks, small cars, teeny-tiny cars, motorized three-wheel rickshaws, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, people, cows (in singles and herd form), and dogs, all share the same road. Probably two thirds of the vehicles on the road have three wheels or less.
  • Vehicles drift from lane to lane, mostly without using turn signals. Vehicles often share lanes and pass each other within the lanes.
  • In the twelve or thirteen mile stretch between my hotel and work, I counted three stoplights. Mind you, this is in the middle of a city of six million people, not a country drive.
  • Road signs, including stop signs, seemed to be ignored.
  • Clearance between vehicles is a fraction of the minimums we observe in America. Bangalore is a city of tailgaters.
  • Few motorcyclists had helmets, and many had people, including women holding babies, perched side-saddle on the back.

The visual experience of being in the taxi reminded me of dogfight scenes in Star Wars. I expected to hear the driver say “Don’t tell me the odds” as he plunged into an asteroid field. Halfway through the week it occurred to me that Disney could create an exciting and educational ride called “The Bangalore Experience”, or maybe an IMAX movie out of this.

See this video for an example of what it’s like.

Every morning of my stay I took a 45 minute cab ride from my hotel (the wonderful ITC Windsor Sheraton Hotel and Towers) to the place I was to teach. The first trip was hair-raising. I gripped the handhold and placed my briefcase in “brace” position. By the second day, I noticed that we hadn’t yet been in an accident. By the third day, I began to look carefully for evidence of accidents of any kind. I found nothing: no vehicle debris on the road, almost no one driving with a dented bumper, only one emergency vehicle seen for my fourteen rush hour trips.

The stark contradiction between empirical evidence and my predictions led me to look closely for the difference in context between American driving and Indian. Here are some of my observations:

  • Drivers are alert: If you expect people to cut you off at any second, you drive with one foot on the brake and a sharp eye. My driver reminded me of my son playing a cideo game. Eyes riveted on the road.
  • Honk for safety: Horns are used very frequently. A blast every few seconds. Many trucks had hand-painted signs on there rear bumpers saying “please honk”. In America, honking the horn is almost always an expression of irritation or outright rage. Horns are honked from anger and hearing them evokes anger. In Bangalore, honking is a matter of politeness. I distinguished three kinds of honking: bip, beep and beeeep. Bip is a quick honk that means “hi” or “ahem” and is used to alert another driver to our presence. “Beep” is a longer honk that seems to mean “excuse me, I would like to move through here.” And “beeeep” means “Please stop blocking me. Okay, thank you for moving.”
  • Drivers seem to be calm in the midst of traffic. I didn’t see anyone obviously angry, anyway. I think Americans in the same situation would get pretty frustrated.
  • Slow speed: According to my GPS, our typical speed was 25 mph, and we never exceeded 40 mph. The lower speeds mean shorter stopping distances and generally more time to react.
  • Small vehicles: They just have more room to maneuver than we do on a typical American street, because we drive mostly full-size cars.

Context-driven methodology says that there are no best practices, only good practices in context. In the context of Bangalore, a different set of driving rules seem to be working. Now, I do know about statistics, and my observations were not quantitative, so maybe it is actually the case that there are a lot more accidents per capita than here in the States. Nevertheless, I would have predicted carnage and gridlock, and that obviously was not their situation.

7 thoughts on “Context-Driven Driving

  1. Would the streets of Bangalore be more safe and the transportation efficiency improved if they adopted (at, I’m assuming, a much higher cost than they pay now) the “American” method of having more rigid driving rules, more traffic lights, better designed routes, etc.? Hmmm…

    I always look at things like this as a trade-off between “really good and (relatively) expensive” and “adequate and cheap (or is that affordable?)”. But of course it depends on the economic and cultural context, right? What’s the cost of improving, and what are the benefits?

  2. Possibly worth noting: When I lived in Ohio, the interstate highways there (I-80 and I-90, at least) used to have white roadsigns posting a *minimum* speed of 40 MPH. I don’t know if they are still posted, but they did always seem ironic whenever I was stuck in traffic getting in and out of Cleveland.

    I asked about this, and the city/highway planners I talked to indicated that there is a heuristic that driver behavior changes at around 38 MPH. I got the impression that slowdowns at or below that speed tend to self-propagate and produce solitons or “standing waves” of slow traffic.

    I suspect that might have to do with a shift in alertness and/or the cues drivers use: above that transition, you are cruising; below it you are stop-start driving.

    I conjecture that “road rage” might stem in part from the mismatch between an expected and relatively calming cruising experience and an experienced protracted stop-start experience.

    It would appear from your reported GPS readings that the Bangalore drivers rarely, if ever, get into the cruising zone–so they are not conditioned to expect it. They get their “video game face” on, as it were, and enter the fray.

    I further conjecture that a certain fraction of traffic accidents in the US are due to city drivers getting into the cruising zone or mindset and not paying sufficent attention to “news of difference” such as stopsigns or lights, likely cross traffic, drivers preparing to exit parked cars, etc.

    But that notion trails off into the much looser hypothesis of cluelessness, so I’ll leave it there.

    Great to see you blogging, Jim!

  3. In 1998, I travelled to Israel. When I got there, I took a minivan from Tel Aviv (where I landed) to Haifa, where I was working, about an hour’s drive. There was a lot of tailgating at 80mph. I was terrified and, frankly, annoyed; the drivers there may indeed be skilful, but laws of physics are immutable. Car accidents don’t get a lot of publicity. Consider that about 1300 people have died of road accidents in Israel since the beginning of the Second Intifada–a number greater than the Israeli terror victims.

    See this article:

    The title is “AP to offer emergency care services on national highways”

    (AP seems to stand for Apollo Hospitals)


    “Dr Anji Reddy, director general, Health Services, Government of AP, said India had the largest number of fatalities due to automobile accidents in the world. Studies done by various organizations like the World Bank, National Academy of Sciences and the World Road Association had shown that in India, which had less than 4 million vehicles, over 56,000 persons were dying every year. In contrast, in the US, which has over 175 million vehicles, less than 35,000 succumb to auto accidents per year.”

    “The death rate is 2 people per 10,000 vehicles in the US, 32.5 people per 10,000 vehicles in Pakistan, and 140 people per 10,000 vehicles in India. He said that the death rate in India would not come down if the existing medical care facilities for trauma is not utilized. “

  4. You should check Bangalore now, its even more crowded but as you said people here are little more careful while driving. Wish to see you driving in bangalore rush hours..

  5. Really enjoyed this reading, Loved it!

    I am from Pakistan and what you have described above does not seemed a bit out of the context 🙂

    We use heuristics to move around the roads. Simple as that, and some of these are:

    (Please note that we have Right Hand Driven Vehicles and the traffic moves up in Left Lanes)

    a. Left Lane on the road (the slowest of lanes is the fastest, as it contains Bikers mostly, so if you wanna move ahead keep that lane at your disposal)
    b. You are going as fast as the vehicle in-front of you
    c. Do not indicate as the driver behind you would want to take up the lane – Immediately!
    d. Always keep an eye on the Front Wheel of the Long / Large Vehicles they will point out where it is turning
    e. Third Gear is the most efficient gear
    f. On the signal Yellow means to speed up!
    g. Keep the windows open – as the sound of the vehicles tells you if they are speeding up or down
    h. Never push a jammed brake
    i. Always cut from the far out side, never take the inner lane
    j. If there is an intersection on the road, keep to the left

    and so on…



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