On Sunday I drove from our cottage deep in rural south Tamil Nadu to Chennai, where I shall be studying for a month. Driving in India fills many people’s hearts with fear, but here in Tamil Nadu it’s really not as bad as all that – once you get used to the informal Highway Code which operates here. But the roads, and the driving, are so much better than they were when we first came to Chennai in 2001. That May it took us over 13 hours to drive the 500 km to Kodaikanal. The road was a normal 2-lane highway and full of lorries – and there seemed to be a wreck of a lorry every 20 km or so. Overtaking was a tense affair and seemingly independent of bends or brows of hills, or indeed whether someone was already overtaking coming in the other direction. We shall never forget seeing an ox-cart coming round the corner towards us, being passed by a lorry, which in turn was being overtaken by a bus. That occupied all of the tarmac, leaving us the hard shoulder – which was fortunately unoccupied.
Since 1998 the National Highways Development Project has been turning major highways into dual carriageways, and widening and straightening them and building bridges over the many railways which criss-cross the plains. They started on the NH45 Chennai to Dindigul road about 7 years ago and now it is complete our journey time has halved. Queuing at a single level crossing (or “railway gate”) could have added 30 to 40 minutes to a journey alone, and passing through the centre of each town half and hour more.
So what are the current rules of the road? First: you are responsible for avoiding everything which is ahead of you (ie with the front of the other vehicle level or ahead of the driver’s seat). So if someone turns left across your bows from the right hand lane, you have to miss them. By deduction, everyone who is behind that imaginary line can be safely ignored. Use of wing and rear view mirrors is entirely optional. Indicators are not necessary. As they say, if you are lucky enough to have have a hand free, use it on the horn.
Second: on a dual carriageway the outside lane is for slow vehicles. Passing is done on the inside – it is helpful to have a front-seat passenger who can tell you when the way is clear. [This is similar to the job of the cleaner of a lorry, whose function when the lorry is under way is to flap his hand when the lorry wants to veer left]. The “fast” lane is also occasionally used by lorries and buses coming in the opposite direction. This is because the highway builders have not put enough gaps in the central meridian, and no lorry or bus driver is prepared to enter the highway and drive in the wrong direction until there is a place they can do a U-turn. Waste of precious and expensive diesel.
Third: in towns, where road users range from 2 wheels to many, and for that matter from ox-carts to pedestrians, it is the duty of every driver/operator to gain as much advantage as possible over his fellow road users, whether it makes any difference to the total journey time or not. Every traffic light is a scrum; lane markings are just for fun; roads are for walking on (since the pavements are dodgy or non-existent). Driving through urban traffic is very much like snorkelling through a shoal of fish.
And fourth: rural roads have been built to give farmers a nice clean flat place to dry their grain, load their tractors, winnow their rice, and generally meet their friends.
But remember that most vehicles are being driven not by their owner but by an employed driver, who has a vested interest in avoiding accidents. Enjoy your journey! You see so much more than from the train or plane.