Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Road of a Difference

You can tell a lot about a country by its roads and traffic patterns...

Actually, I just made that up and I have no idea what it means. But I will say that I have grown quite interested in Indian traffic, particularly in contrast to America's own roads and traffic and driving etiquette. If you're an ABCD, you may be familiar with the argument made by your elders that goes something like "sure India's roads are disorganized, and it looks totally chaotic with all the cars and rickshaws and cows and bikes and pedestrians mixed in with no lanes and impossibly narrow passing lanes and no traffic signals and horns blaring from all directions and oncoming traffic coming head-on, but if you look closely, there's a method to the madness." Then you might hear stories about how Indian drivers work on subtle cues that ABCDs are too dense to notice, like a twitch of the head to signal the direction the driver coming head on is going to go, or the hand signals and horn beats that truckers give to let you know it's safe to pass (by the way, it always kills me how in India you don't use turn signals to turn, but to indicate that its clear for cars behind to pass on a two-lane highway). All this to convince you that despite the fact that you wet your pants every time you go for a drive, it's all totally safe.

Then this proud old uncle might drop the bomb: "Just look at the number of traffic accidents that happen in India... it's far less than in America." Hmmmmmmm. I've been thinking about that a bit, because up until recently I've been pretty convinced by this argument. I always found it romantic how in India traffic is "organic" in the sense of order out of disorder. Everything works precisely because there's no rules. It appeals to the commie in me, as my brother may remark. But in any case it's pretty easy to be taken up with that belief.

But honestly, is it true? And also, how can you really know? I can't think of a very clean way of comparing the safety of American roads and Indian. Do you do some sort of ratio of number of accidents to number of miles driven? Is it even possible to get that latter number? And then how do you account for the discrepancy in the frequency of documented accidents? And is it even an apples to apples comparison if you don't control for car types and average speeds, road conditions, urban/rural road breakdown, etc.? It seems like a mighty interesting research topic if you ask me.

But to address the first question, I am lately not convinced of the safety of roads here. In the last 3 months, I have seen at least 6 serious car wrecks, and I don't drive a whole lot. Also, I've seen two dead bodies on the road, something I've never seen on a road at home. The first one was a biker. He was just spilled out in the middle of the road face down, not moving, in a contorted position, his bike mangled by his side. The second was a gruesome one where a big rig ran off the road on a rural highway... the driver lay with his body hanging out of the cab in a bloody mess. And this is not even counting the number of times I felt this close to hitting another vehicle, or the time I got clipped in the leg by an oncoming biker when I was on a scooter. Just through my eyes, I feel that roads here are more dangerous, hands down.

On the flip side, I think roads in India have a much better sense of humor than American roads. Though big lumbering billboards try to be funny in the U.S., usually they try too hard and are just plain annoying. In India, on the other hand, you see all kinds of humorous stuff on the roads, including lounging cows, goats, camels, etc. that have no problem stopping traffic and there's not a damn thing us superior species members can do but wait. And then theres the always comical 15 people in a 5-person vehicle phenomenon which is an Indian institution. Whenever you come to India, you think a previous vehicle configuration you've seen couldn't be topped, but people here always manage to outdo themselves by packing in an extra body. Also another funny thing is watching road construction work. It's always great to see the obligatory "10 workers squatting around and watching a single worker breaking pavement with a blunt pick" scene. I really need to take a picture of this one day, it's so classic. I like it for the same reason I enjoy toll booths on the new Indian interstate highways, where there is at least 50% of the people working there being completely useless. Guards/Attendants just walk around, congregating around this booth or that, or just sitting in the shade not doing a damn thing. And unlike in America, there isn't just one person in a booth that takes your money; theres another guy that stands next to the booth who takes your money, hands it to the guy in the booth, takes the receipt from the guy, and hands it to you. Nice work sahib! But in fairness, by some completely ridiculous design decision, that middle man is actually necessary because the booth windows are unreachable for a person sitting in their car. These latter two examples demonstrate a more general fact about India: manpower is a-plenty. The same thing at gas stations... they are full service with attendants. Imagine if there were ATM pay machines at the gas stations and the toll booths were built efficiently and they got a jackhammer to do road construction... half the country would be out of a job. Method to the madness.

But this all takes me way away from my original point about roads being funny. If you've ever driven on the interstates here, you'll now that the signs are totally hilarious with these funny little maxims and pieces of advice and fun facts about the shiny new highways. In Baroda, on one of the busiest streets, Old Padra Road, there are similar funny little signs. One day I decided to walk to Masi's house so I could snap pictures of them on the way. Here are my favorites... Anjoy!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that the signs are awesome! Now I get the title of this blog entry. The road is trying to make a difference in your life, right? Clever, clever.