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.