Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Road Rules

A truck is barreling toward us in the passing lane, and I am convinced that the last words I will ever read are “Goods Carrier”—the sign emblazoned above the oncoming truck’s windshield. Suddenly we swing back into our lane and the truck skims past us. Welcome to highway driving, Indian-style.

Drivers take every opportunity to overtake the vehicle in front of them. It doesn’t matter if their lane is bumper-to-bumper or that three trucks, two cars, a scooter with a family of five, and an auto-rickshaw are in the passing lane. There is no room for hesitation—seize any opening and speed forcefully ahead. Even on four-lane highways, traffic invariably ends up in the wrong lane, as cars suddenly cross the median, perhaps for a detour or simply a change of scenery. Oncoming traffic might be mere feet, even inches, away from causing a head-on collision. But then, miraculously, the passing driver returns to his lane, until it’s time to overtake the next car.

Cars and motorbikes often hover between lanes, as if it were a "Middle Way" to highway salvation. But drivers aren't alone in their roadway exploits. Dogs nonchalantly dodge speeding vehicles, while random water buffalo wander past on the shoulder. The only time traffic halts obediently is at railway crossings or when a herd of cattle has to get to the other side of the road.

The government has taken steps to urge caution. A sign might warn “Accident Spot, 200 Meters,” though it is unclear what distinguishes that particular area as more accident-prone than others. Some signs employ platitudes such as “Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” but my favorites attempt word play—“Safety on the Road Means ‘Safe Tea’ at Home”—or beseech, somewhat suggestively, “Be Smooth on My Curves.”

There’s good reason for promoting prudent behavior. However, highway driving here doesn’t strike me as a game of chicken but as an intense exercise in negotiation. There are so many people, all in a hurry, and there isn’t enough road for all of them. The system of constant overtaking addresses the problem, if not solves it. Bombay is far too crowded for such compromises and drivers there can sit for hours, barely moving. Drivers outside the city, however, have developed a strategy for avoiding traffic jams.

Of course, it helps that I am not the one behind the wheel. Adeet and I sit in the back as our driver expertly weaves between lanes. I trust him, and after an hour or two I can begin to relax. I enjoy the view—candy-colored temples, roadside dabas that serve fresh meals, and stalls selling everything from pots and pans to brooms to bangles. This all helps distract me from the trucks charging toward us, though I still hope “Goods Carrier” aren’t the last words to flash before my eyes.

photo by Kate Deshmukh, enroute from Nasik to Shirpur

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