Differences in driving between the UK & India

Hitting a milestone has its upsides and downsides. I remember planning a special trip in my Nano to the twisties of the Western Ghats about 150km from Mumbai, just so that I could hit 30,000km on the odometer. In the same spirit, as this will be Carquirks’ 50th post, I wanted to do something special. I’ve been driving around the city of Mumbai for nearly a month now which, as you may note from this post, has had a detrimental effect on the number of blog posts.  The pressure to make it special one was a bit daunting and has led to a serious case of procrastination on my part.

After coming up with various ideas and topics that all fell through I decided I wanted to write about a few observations I have made while driving in India and driving in the UK. How is it that a country that borrowed all of its driving rules from the UK, from driving on the left side of the road to the construction of roundabouts, drive so differently?

A small disclaimer here:

These are just theories put forward based on observations and statistics. They have not been proven in any significant way.

The two-wheeler theory

India has recently become a hub for motorbike and scooter manufacturers. Indian companies like Hero MotoCorp, Bajaj Auto, and TVS are the largest manufacturers in the world churning out 10s of million units a year. The bike culture is quite strong with people from all walks of life using motorcycles. Cities like Pune are littered with motorbikes and scooters, from 100cc commuter bikes to full-blown American cruisers.

Hero Dawn, Indian Motorcycles, TVS Scooty Zest, and Royal Enfield Bullet
Clockwise from the top: 125cc Hero Dawn, Indian’s range of motorcycles, TVS Scooty Zest, and the iconic Royal Enfield Bullet, all are sold in India. (Image source: Hero website, Indian Motorcycles website, TVS website & Royal Enfield website)

The problem is that Indians drive cars the same way they would ride a bike. For example, a person on a bike can change lanes with ease, fit into small gaps in traffic, and park almost anywhere. When driving a car, this mentality means chaos. Indians routinely turn a single lane road into multiple lanes leaving no space for emergency vehicles or even room to breathe. We also tend to jack-knife through traffic and constantly cut into any lane we feel might be going faster than the one we are in.

There is a correlation between a higher concentration of bike ownership and driving poorly. Based on a survey by CityLab, European countries like Italy and Greece have a higher number of two-wheelers per household and are also known for driving worse than their neighbours. Similarly, Thailand, Indonesia, China, and India all have a high percentage of two-wheelers in use and these countries have significantly more road fatalities than Japan or South Korea.

The momentum theory

This theory has a basis in the above one. Having ridden around on a few bikes and scooters, I can honestly say that it is painful to stop for a long period of time at a large junction. Slowing down on a two-wheeler possesses it share of risks as well due to the inherent lack of balance in these vehicles. This is where the momentum theory comes in.

person-motor-racing-motorbike-motorcycle
Balancing a motorcycle or scooter at low speeds is not too difficult but it is irritating. (Image source: Pexels)

In India, two-wheelers are driven in a manner that allows the rider to rarely put his/her feet on the ground by keeping on moving. This manner continues irrespective of the number of wheels, whether three, four, or even eight wheeled vehicles being driven the same.

There is another aspect to keeping the momentum. I am not sure whether this phenomenon is due to the Indian mindset focussed on frugality or out of sheer laziness, but Indians do not shift gears when they are supposed to. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck behind a car or a bike that refuses to accelerate properly or keep up with traffic. It seems like people refuse to shift down and prefer to wait ages for the revs to rise to a level where they would stop being a hindrance on the road.

Clockwise from the top: A torque converter automatic, CVT, automated manual, and a standard 5-speed manual
Clockwise from the top: A torque converter automatic, CVT, automated manual, and a standard 5-speed manual. Even with the proliferation of affordable automatics, most cars sold in India are manual transmission. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons, Flickr, & Free Great Picture)

Short-shifting and skipping gears are absolutely fine, as long as you don’t hold up traffic. Like I said in my rant, we need to learn how to use manual transmissions correctly, beyond learning how not to stall the engine. While the sale of automatic cars doubled in 2016, only 7% of new passenger vehicles sold in India had automatic transmissions. This implies the issue will continue for a long time.

The competition theory

Another pet theory of mine is based on the fact that Indians drive like they are always two corners away from victory in a race. The “I have to arrive at the signal before that other car,” mentality is strong with Indians. Let’s face it, we’ve all had that moment when we see a car that was driving like a maniac and cutting through traffic like a wobbly, blunt knife through cardboard, only to arrive at the same traffic light. A sneer of condescension and a hearty look at the driver of the car is enough to get that sense of satisfaction of being as fast as the guy who nearly killed five pedestrians in the last 15 minutes.

Porsche 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans
The World Endurance Championship is an apt metaphor for driving on Mumbai’s roads. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

While it negatively affects our driving in general, this propensity to go as fast as possible is also a reason why Indians love to drive. The competition makes it much more enjoyable, whether it’s a quest to achieve the best mileage, or to reach the destination the quickest.

The UK has one simple methodology when it comes to driving and it is based on one word, “safety.” A thumb rule to drive in the UK is to imagine the safest thing to do in any situation and you’ll be correct 99% of the time. Rather than the feeling of competition found in the Indian driving style, driving in the UK bears a feeling of synergy, a collective movement towards a common goal. Cars move with a purpose from a stop sign or traffic light, reaching the desired speed quickly, and then cruising at that limit. Watching vehicles go around a roundabout in an ordered yet rapid manner is a thing of beauty, like watching synchronised swimmers at the Olympics.

Explosive_fun_at_Holloman's_Freedom_Fest
It is fun to drive on India’s lawless roads but we need proper training to be safe. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

As I had pointed out in my rant, training the only way to solve India’s massive traffic problem is to provide proper training. Bear in mind that there will be a loss of that competitive spirit that makes driving in India fun, in addition to the fact that the loose rules allow one to do things they would not do otherwise. In a sense, some people may feel a loss of freedom when driving but I honestly think it isn’t much of a sacrifice.

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