James May on driving in India

Posted by James May at 06:40 am on Thursday August 16, 2012

My enemy's enemy is my friend. I believe this ancient proverb to be all rather interesting, as it must mean that the taxi driver who annoyed me so much yesterday is actually my best mate. He hated motorcyclists, though, and I am one sometimes. Meanwhile, motorcyclists hate drivers, and bus drivers hate taxi drivers, and cyclists hate everyone else, but it's reciprocated - let's be honest. Pedestrians hate cars, and everyone hates those bicycle rickshaws, and van drivers hate pedestrians.

But van drivers are hated by proper lorry drivers, and they can feel the white heat of a scooter rider's look of pure murder, even through the 10 tonnes of Tesco pies in the back of the rig. Road-user sectarianism is beginning to annoy me. We're all trying to do roughly the same thing - get somewhere - and we all have common enemies much more dangerous than an inattentively driven, small people-carrier: those who shirk the nation's responsibility to maintain road surfaces, private clampers, mobile parking cameras, the ministers of road-pricing experiments. You know who they are. These are the real forces of darkness, and they shall creep up and suppress us while we bicker pointlessly. They are in our midst, and one day they will come for you and there will be no one to help you, because you didn't help them.

I'm beginning to wonder if the roads are not a model for society as a whole. The demands of its users are hugely varied; the infrastructure and its systems are inadequate. But if we can get along on the roads in a spirit of tolerance and goodwill, then we can manage our differences everywhere, and great roadcraft will have spelt the end of war, famine and pestilence. This brings me to India.

What we feared most about driving in India during our Christmas special was not Gandhi's Revenge but Indian driving, which, let's face it, has a reputation for being a bit freestyle. But I'm delighted to report to you that Indian driving is, as they might say, most excellent.

Let's go back for a moment to my much-debated and largely misunderstood concept of Christian Motoring. In my original investigation, I discovered that driving like a complete arse didn't seem to get me anywhere any quicker than turning the other cheek.

So: always let someone out, always make space for someone to change lane. Jeremy will now point out that this must leave you at the back and lengthen your journey time. But not if everyone does it, because you in turn will be let out somewhere else.

The average speed of traffic in our big cities is usually quoted at something between 13 and 20kph. But we must be wary of averages - it probably means sporadic bursts of up to 65kph and then an eternity standing still. Under the rules of Christian Motoring, I reckon, speed would be quite low - say 30kph in town - but constant. But how to conduct the experiment?

Turns out it's been going on for years in India, where they practise what we can call Hindu Motoring. There may also be elements of Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian and Zoroastrian Motoring in there, but let's not get bogged down in who worships what. It seems to work.

The rules are these: the vehicle in front has right of way, and it's your job to warn of your presence with the horn. ‘In front' might mean that the car to one side is just a few inches closer to some nominal distant point than yours is, but that means you have to let him in if he wants to go in front of you.

The amazing thing is that no matter how optimistic your lane-changing manoeuvre, you will be let in. No one actually wants a crash, after all, and where we would lean on the horn and enjoy a moment of indignation, the Indian lorry driver just lets it pass. He'll be let in himself soon. In truth, this system may have been forced upon the drivers of this great nation. Much of the road network is greatly undeveloped, and it's not always clear which side to drive on. To those of us pampered by a reassuring system of rules and conventions, it seems like madness. But bereft of any artificial guidance, human goodwill and common sense makes for great traffic flow.

It's exactly as Wernher von Braun of rocketry fame said - the human computer is the best computer in the world, and the only one that can be mass-produced by totally unskilled labour.

TAGS// james may, india special

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