Traffic in India has to be one of the most important aspects of the Rickshaw Run. We have never experienced anything like it and I am not sure I can explain it. India is the second most populous country in the world and expected to surpass China in 2021. 2021! That is only 6 years from now and China has much more land mass to distribute the people. This many people in such a small space causes many problems and requires better infrastructure than exists. However, this blog is only tackling traffic and our driving experience.
Not only are there more people on the roads, but they are divided into more kinds of transportation at varying speed capabilities. You may have on the same road at the same time ox carts, bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, pedal rickshaws, cars, cargo trucks, buses, tractors, and Dave and I in an auto rickshaw. Our max speed was 60 km per hour or 37 mph. The speed limits we saw ranged from 20 to 100 km/hr. The slowest traffic was the cows. They definitely travel at their own speed and they are given free reign. Everyone respects the cows. I think they are the only things that will bring a truck or bus to a complete stop from 60 km/hr. Everyone else is taking their lives in their own hands getting in their way. So the hierarchy is cows, then trucks and buses. I would put cars next, but they are nimble enough to make their way better than trucks and buses. They are faster and smaller and are the only vehicles we saw go 100 km/hr.
With the crazy mix of vehicles and speeds, the complete lack of rules actually makes sense. People drive on the wrong side of the road – to go around parked, broken down, or slow moving vehicles. People pull onto the road immediately, not waiting for a gap. They may not get a gap for hours, so they just go and assume traffic will adjust for them. People also drive on the wrong side of the road, because medians divide the directions and do not have breaks for many kilometers. You just always have to expect that someone may be coming right at you. As crazy and chaotic as it is, it works. People get where they need to go and injuries are far fewer than in the states. How can this be? We think it is because drivers in India have to be more alert, aware of everything and ready for anything. In the states, we are lulled into a false sense of security by assuming everyone will follow the rules and respect our space. We’re shocked and mad when someone cuts us off, invading our perceived space. In India, you know where every vehicle is around you at all times. Many and perhaps most people cannot same the same in the states.
Besides cows… oxen, water buffalo, goats, sheep, dogs, pigs, ducks, and cats all share the road with people and their various vehicles. I mean, it really is a crazy mix. Some rickshaw runners saw elephants, but those are mostly in the national parks. Dave and I didn’t see any… at least not walking of their own volition.
You might see 4 or more people on one motorbike. Which, by the way, there is a helmet law but only for the driver and it is only enforced on particular religious festival days. We saw a guy getting his motorcycle confiscated for not wearing a helmet, yet on every other day almost no one wears one.
A few accidents do happen in the cities, but not nearly as many as it seems should happen. Most accidents happen on the open road and they are usually truckers that fall asleep at the wheel. It is not unusual for truckers to drive 72 hours straight. They drink alcohol, chew betel nut and some kind of upper powder, or chew tobacco in order to stay awake. I would think alcohol would have the opposite effect, but nonetheless drinking and driving is extremely common.
We were involved in a few accidents while driving our rickshaw. The first was a bicyclist that hit a pineapple top and toppled into the side of us while we were stopped. The second was the toll road arm coming down on top of us as we tried to pass by. In the third, we were rear-ended by the rickshaw we were towing, because the rope wrapped around their front wheel. The last was another auto rickshaw that rear-ended us and scuffed up his paint. None were serious, thank goodness, and we turned in the rickshaw with only one small dent in the rear bumper. Unfortunately, not all rickshaw runners can say the same. There were a few that rolled their rickshaws causing injuries and one broken foot when it was run over by their own rickshaw. One was clipped in the back corner by a trucker that dozed off and sent them off the road and rolled down a hill, slicing open one lady’s leg to the bone. Yes, this event can be dangerous, but we were fortunate and had an awesome experience. The following video is long, about 8 minutes, but it does give a good idea of what India was like and what we experienced.