Some of us in America (well at least my family) like to disparage different groups of drivers. I have fond memories from my childhood of my grandfather ranting about “women drivers” or “old people drivers” after some poor woman or senior citizen performed a maneuver improperly or at least annoyingly. Anne and I also had a habit early in our marriage of commenting on “Asian drivers,” not because Asian American drivers are any worse or better than average but because our first housemate was Asian and drove with a reckless abandon which was all the more funny since she was 4’10″ and could barely be seen over her steering wheel. She also went about 55,000 miles without changing her oil and officially killed her engine, but that is a different story. I also remember people from Utah commenting on “California drivers.” I am not exactly sure if that meant they were too careful, too reckless, or just had a disregard for the rules of the road. A “Utah driver,” friends from California would tell me, does not get out of the fast lane when a faster car is tailgating them and/or flashing their lights. I am sure there are hundreds of variations of so called bad driving groups all over the United States, but from what I have seen they all are more fiction than fact. If you really want to see some bad driving, come to Asia and especially India. … mmm?
Early in the trip I might have joked about the crazy Chinese drivers who think they are on a race track, the Cambodians who pile 20 people in and on top of a Toyota Camry, or the Vietnamese who have figured out how to get 6 or 7 people on one motorbike. These countries were mere preparation, however, for the road anarchy that is India. I will never claim any other group to be bad drivers at home, because the drivers in India would win the Bad Driving Academy awards in almost every category. Unfortunately they don’t get rewards; they get in accidents, lots of them. In our short two months, I saw more roadside carnage than I would see in a decade in the US. We saw two truck accidents, multiple car on car accidents, one truck on person aftermath (not a happy site), and one horrific truck on bus accident. As horrible as these accidents were, given the habits of the drivers, it truly was amazing that we didn’t see many, many more.
There is a general sense of lawlessness on the roads. People drive where they need to when they need to. This might include a quick trip down the wrong side of a divided highway. Of course people are courteous about it and they do honk in warning. In fact, they honk at everything. They honk when they are breaking the law, when they pass, when someone is standing on the side of the road, when a cow is standing nearby, whenever they darn well please. They honk and they honk and they honk. Honking at this frequency only heightens the sense of chaos. At one point I was walking on the side of a 2-lane road. Coming toward me was an auto-rickshaw in the far shoulder, a bus in the far lane, one car in the near lane, and another car in the shoulder I was walking. All 4 of them were barreling straight toward me and of course honking. The one in the shoulder left a large trail of dust which covered me as I jumped into a field to avoid being smashed. Other than the fact that they were four wide, this didn’t surprise me. One of the Indian rules of the road is “Pass as soon possible. Do not wait until it is lawful or safe to do so.” Taxis are the worst. They must all attend the same Grand Prix training school. As the pilot or copilot in all our car travel, I had the unenviable position of being the first to see trouble as it hurled towards us. I would increase my grip on the handle above my head and close one eye. In every instance our car or the car coming at us would veer to the side in a strange game of chicken; I would release my grip on the handle and mutter something under my breath. It would be one thing if everyone always made it safely through these close calls. However, in India they may do not make it. Every day three people die on a single road in Chennai. One autorickshaw crashed with 17 people in it (the maximum occupancy is officially 4). Busses go off overpasses and pedestrians are run over like armadillos in Texas. All you can do is buckle up and pray. Well, as none of our cars had seat belts, all you can do is pray.
Given this situation, I figured I would do what every father would do. I let Dax drive. He is 14 after all. Don’t worry, Grandmas. It wasn’t on a busy road, and with the exception of pedestrians on the street, there wasn’t anything too dangerous he could hit. He was shocked when I let him get into the driver’s seat. He was worried when I explained to him how to drive a manual transmission, but he was thrilled when the car took off. He quickly jumped from first to second gear and then I shut him down. We got out of the car and switched places both with very big grins on our faces. I explained to Dax that I wanted him to be able to say the first time he drove a car was in India. He looked pleased and we headed back to the home to meet up with the rest of the family. I was proud of myself for creating an opportunity for him. However, a couple of days later he came to me and confessed, “India wasn’t the first place I drove a car.” “Oh,” I replied a bit surprised. “Yes..,” Dax continued, “Uncle Scott… or maybe it was Grandpa, I can’t remember which, let me drive…well, pull out of the driveway.” I told him that didn’t count, even though it probably does. At least he can say that he drove in India and survived. Unfortunately, in this tragic land there are too many people who cannot say the same.