Traffic and riding in cars in India left quite an impression on me the first time I was here. Driving behaviors in India are quite a bit different from driving behaviors in the United States. They’re so different, in fact, that I would never recommend that an American attempt to drive in India until they’d lived in the country for at least a year and probably not even then.
John drove us through western Turkey in 2010 and that was a harrowing experience. When we got home from that trip, he had heart palpitations from the stress (he caught himself holding his breath a lot after the trip). But Turkish driving and Indian driving are categorically different. Drivers in India regularly move within millimeters of each other. They don’t often look both ways when they turn into traffic (it’s the other guy’s job to be watching for him, after all). And they don’t check their rear mirrors before they merge (if a driver is “in front”, he has the right-of-way).
There’s a delicate dance that happens on Indian roadways. I’ve ceased trying to understand them. Buses head toward us straight-on at 40 miles per hour, missing us just barely at the last moment as they pull into the other lane. This happens often and regularly. I used to make some sort of quiet exclamation every time it happened, but now I’ve learned to just look away and always fasten my seatbelt (if possible, as many taxis don’t have functional seat belts).
Understanding the rules of the road is nearly impossible for me or John. We’ve been trained, as Americans, to drive in our lane, to use our turn signals, and to honk only if there’s a good reason for it. Here, honking is a form of communication much like a baby’s cry: it can have many meanings depending on the context.
But besides the obscure or possibly non-existent driving laws in India, drivers must contend with pedestrians, cows, bicyclists and anything else you could possibly imagine. Yesterday I read about a man who killed himself by jumping to his death because he accidentally ran into 3 cows with his truck. There’s some kind of “Cow Vigilante” (Gau Rakshas) problem happening here right now (August 2016) and I’m not exactly sure what the repercussions would be for a foreigner who hits a cow with a car. Today, on a taxi ride, I saw an infant that was lying in the dirt sleeping unattended, it’s little black curls only about 5 feet from heavy traffic. How do you prepare yourself for that kind of weirdness as an American driver in India? You can’t. Which is why it’s really unwise for Americans to try to drive in India at least not at first…not without spending some time there, getting used to the place.
A better option is to hire a driver in India. This is how Indians do it themselves. There are a lot of good, friendly drivers out there who keep their vehicles clean. Paying a driver helps support the local economy and it’s less likely to end in disaster than if you try to drive yourself. Hiring a driver also brings travelers into contact with locals, enhancing the whole experience of traveling and it offers weary tourists the opportunity to nap on a long trip too.
Certainly there are exceptional situations where driving in India could be okay for an American who’s never been there before but I can’t think of any. Some small Indian towns may be fairly tame in terms of traffic, but I haven’t seen any yet (and I’ve been through a fair number of small towns here). And there would be no way to get a rental vehicle to a small town without renting it in a big city. So, if you were considering a car rental in India, consider hiring a taxi instead. You’ll learn more about the culture that way and probably have a more relaxing ride. Without a doubt, it will be safer than if you tried to drive yourself.