- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

NEW DELHI — Parminder Singh, toy salesman and part-time driving instructor, turned to his newest student and carefully spelled out a basic rule: “In Delhi, the horn is not a problem.”

If a bus won’t move aside, honk; if a rickshaw gets too close or a cow is in the road, honk; if an entire family — mother, father, two children — is packed onto a motor scooter and slowing traffic: ditto.

“In Delhi, every time is horn. Horn. Horn,” he told me, starting our first lesson. “This is not your America.”

That’s certainly clear.

Driving in India’s sprawling capital city doesn’t mean simply getting behind the wheel; it means waging a Darwinian struggle for traffic survival.

Every day, well over 4 million vehicles — trucks, cars, auto-rickshaws, scooters, motorcycles and buses — take to the roads of this ancient city. Joining them are millions of bicycles, thousands of pushcarts, wandering cows and the occasional elephant or camel.

The streets are a symphony of chaos: Horns blare, cars weave dizzily and turn signals are rarities. Few roads have painted lanes and fewer drivers care.

As India’s economy blossoms, 100,000 more vehicles join the fray each year, further clogging streets originally built for the carriages of Mogul kings and the chauffeur-driven automobiles of British colonials.

Now, there’s one more vehicle.

For two years, I’d gotten around New Delhi in taxis and motorized rickshaws. But my wife and I have a new baby who needs a baby seat. So we bought a car I’d be embarrassed to drive back in the United States — a lumbering, Indian-made, gas-guzzling 4X4 aptly called the Sumo.

I’ve driven on four continents, from Los Angeles to Zimbabwe, making my way through snowstorms, dust storms, fog, rain and traffic jams that seemed to stretch into purgatory.

But New Delhi is different.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I was still 16, trying to break 90 mph in my mother’s station wagon on the back roads of rural Pennsylvania, pretty much oblivious to death. In many ways that could help, because driving in New Delhi requires a strange mix of fatalism and nonchalance. Here, pretty much everyone seems to change location with the understanding that an accident is a real possibility. They just don’t worry about it.

That’s because, as Mr. Singh puts it: “This is India. There are no traffic rules.”

Here, you find everything from drivers blithely slicing across three lanes of busy traffic to lines of cars going the wrong way on one-way streets. Mr. Singh scowlingly points out underage drivers, some looking as young as 12.

During the monsoon, “puddles” can swallow small cars, and the Hindu wedding season fills roads with horse-riding grooms escorted by marching bands.

Drivers’ licenses mean next to nothing. Many driving schools guarantee a license, having worked out a system of bribes with the police. I wouldn’t need any of that, though, since a few hours of waiting in lines and dealing with bored bureaucrats eventually would, I was assured, allow me to get an Indian license by showing my American one.

But spend some time here and another reality slowly emerges, in which the chaos starts to seem strangely orderly. Traffic may seldom move fast, but it tends to move steadily. Also, in a city of near-constant close calls, it seems odd that there aren’t more accidents. And road rage is very much a rarity, despite traffic maneuvers that would drive many Americans berserk.

Still, it’s survival of the biggest, with bicycles, scooters and motorcycles at the mercy of cars, 4X4s and trucks — and pedestrians at the mercy of everyone. Every year, more than 1,500 people are killed in New Delhi traffic.

So, raised on the well-paved order of American roads, I couldn’t grasp the logic of organized chaos.

Looking for an expert, I turned to the Texla Driving School. For about $5 an hour, they sent me Parminder Singh, the toy salesman and driver’s ed instructor, a gentle, middle-aged man with a carefully wrapped turban.

His English is rocky (though far better than my awful Hindi), but he’s a gifted teacher. For six hours of lessons in heat that often topped 105 degrees, I squeezed myself into Texla’s battered, un-air-conditioned subcompact, an Indian-made Maruti, and put my life in Mr. Singh’s hands and panic brake.

I tried, at first, to explain my confusion. But he waved away my questions, insisting it would simply become instinct.

Mr. Singh taught me everything from the proper lane-changing technique — glance in the mirror and barge in — to avoiding one particularly long red light by driving the wrong way on a highway entrance ramp and then making two illegal U-turns. He told me to always look as if I knew what I was doing and to watch out for racing buses.

And he taught me what not to do: Don’t bother much with turn signals; don’t look over your shoulder; don’t worry much about hitting someone else, since they’ll probably swerve to avoid you.

Among the most important lessons: The horn is your friend.

In India, horns are serious driving tools. They caution absent-minded drivers, drive away wandering cows and let you ask permission to change lanes. On the back of nearly every Indian truck is a painted exhortation to overtaking vehicles: “Horn Please.”

But some things Mr. Singh could not explain. I still don’t know what governs the seemingly random use of turn signals, or why you should ignore most bad driving but erupt angrily every once in a while.

Asked such questions, Mr. Singh would smile and use his catchall answer: “This is India.”

If that didn’t answer my questions, it turned out it didn’t really have to. Sometime during our third lesson, my New Delhi traffic instincts kicked in.

I was, it seemed, driving as if I knew what I was doing.

I was shifting lanes expecting other drivers to make way and nosing the Maruti into tiny openings. I was edging ahead of roaring buses and forcing my way through the anarchic scrums that fill intersections when traffic lights aren’t working. Perhaps most tellingly, I was using the horn far more than the turn signal.

When Mr. Singh noticed that, he paid me his ultimate compliment.

“I think you understand me a little bit,” he said. “You are good driving.”

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