Never mind the cows and the traffic lights: everything you need to know about driving in India

Just another Indian road.
Just another Indian road.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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Driving a car on Indian roads is like being in a bumper car surrounded by three-year-olds in other bumper cars who are coming at you from all different directions. You spend most of your time praying that you won’t hit anyone, although accidents are inevitable.

In India, there is no such thing as a car that’s in perfect condition—most of them are banged up and subsequently patched up.

Traffic in India is a kind of organised chaos. It’s astounding that anyone ever gets to their destination in one piece, but somehow it all works. To those of us who witness this madness by being a brave passenger chauffeured around by an expert Indian driver, it appears as though a god-like level of skill is required to maneuver through the crowded roads. It’s ideal if you’re blessed with Lebron James-like reflexes so that you can avoid running into the guy in front of you who randomly decides to stop in the middle of the road to make sure he has enough cash in his wallet for a night out on the town.

The randomness you encounter on Indian roads is primarily generated from the fact that you’re not only driving among cars, but you’re also in the midst of bicycles, wandering humans, animals, and random objects like a stray seat cushion. Your goal, in getting from point A to point B, is to dodge all of these obstacles.

If you think having an American driver’s license provides you enough ability to drive on the roads in a city like Kolkata, you are mistaken. It takes a totally different kind of thinking—like a survivor kind of mentality: “By god, I will get through this alive in one piece, no matter what it takes.”

You must change your mindset.

What you need to know to drive in India

The concept of mirrors is so foreign to Indian drivers that if you utter the word “balchooism,” you’ll get a similar bewildered reaction as you would when you mention the phrase “rear-view mirror.” Rear-view mirror? What does that mean? There’s a mirror in the back seat?

While driving a car in India, forget that the mirrors even exist. In fact, rip the side-view mirrors right off your doors.

Also, don’t worry about blind spots or looking around you to get a sense of your surroundings. Not only is it unnecessary, it can also be a bad thing.

Here is how driving works in India:

  1. First, scan the area in front of you. Do you see an empty area? If you do, rejoice. In India, where “empty areas” are extremely hard to come by, if you find one, it’s like getting a fortune cookie with a note that says, “You’ll be rich,” instead of “Watch out for low flying birds.”
  2. Now, point your steering wheel towards that direction.
  3. Then floor it so that you can occupy that empty space as quickly as possible before someone else takes it.
  4. During your acceleration, be prepared to slam on the brakes at any time, since there is a 99.99% chance that someone or something will magically appear right in front of you.

That’s it. That’s all you need to know to drive in India. If you repeat the above steps in sequential order over and over again, you will eventually get to your destination. Driving in India can be best summed up as detecting and occupying open spots.

Awareness of your car’s dimensions

Because roads and streets are so crowded, you have to be keenly aware of the dimensions of your car. That’s because you’re not going to have the luxury to leave lots of room between yourself and the cars around you. If you leave any kind of a gap that’s greater than a quarter of an inch, someone will try to squeeze in there.

Lanes, what lanes?

There may be lane markings somewhere on the roads, but they don’t really matter. They are there, in case you feel like staying in a lane, but ultimately it is optional. Basically, you can do whatever you want.

Feel like roaming around from one side of the road to the other? Do it. Feel like driving exactly in the middle of a wide open road with two lanes? Do it.

Want to stop in the middle of the road to text “sup” to your buddy? Do it.

Traffic lights?

There are traffic lights, but like lane markings, you can choose to abide by them if you wish to do so. Traffic lights exist for decorative purposes—mainly to add some nice flashing colours at night. Most people try to follow them if there are cops around, but generally outside of business hours, you don’t have to care about them. Nights and weekends are a free for all.

Run through red lights; stop at green lights; hang out in an intersection—relive your childhood. Feel what it’s like to be young again.

Isn’t driving in India great?

If the police does end up stopping you for running a red light—no big deal. Just buy them pizza, and they will let you go. If that doesn’t work, throw in a Kit-Kat bar. That will most certainly ensure that you can get away with murder.

Using your horn

Honk strategically but use it abundantly. In India, you’ll hear lots of honking, and you will immediately start thinking: What’s wrong with you people? Stop honking. What you don’t realise is that honking in India has many different purposes, just like WD-40. For example, in the same way, you might use WD-40 to remove that pesky stain off your window, you can use your horn to let someone know that they have a hole in their shirt.

Here are a few things you can convey by honking your horn.

  • Tell people to move out of the way
  • Alert people of your existence
  • Use it to express your anger
  • Let someone know you don’t like his face

When driving your car in India, the horn becomes an extension of yourself. Just like the way you give people disapproving glares, or acknowledge someone’s kindness, the copious use of your horn is another way to express yourself.

Honk if you want people to know how delicious your sandwich was that you just had for lunch.

Using your high beams

Sometimes when you’re driving in India, you will encounter so many flashing lights that if they weren’t plain ol’ white lights, you would think that you were surrounded by emergency vehicles. Using your high beams is basically the same as honking—it’s about expressing who you are.

Strategically combine flashing your lights and honking to let people know what your innermost feelings are: although you’re generally a happy person, some days you wake up feeling sad, and want to go right back to bed.


Using your turn signals doesn’t mean: “Hey, I want to turn, can you let me in?” It means: “I’m going to do this no matter what, so you better move out of my way.”

Which brings me to my final point: Whatever you do, do not hit anyone.

Safety is not the problem here. You’re driving at a slower pace than walking (approximately 0.5 miles per hour), and so a slight tap in this case will cause no injury or damage whatsoever. The scary part, here, is the aftermath. As soon as there is a wreck of any kind, no matter how insignificant it is, people will run across the street, jump out of nearby bushes, and run out of their offices to show up—not check on you to see if you’re ok—instead, they will come up to you so that they can scream in your face, and try to get a punch in. The crowd around you will multiply faster than anything you’ve witnessed before: two people, then four, then 20… Aaahhh, what’s happening?

Within minutes, you will be in the middle of a flurry of activity with enough yelling and screaming to blow out your eardrums. No one will have a clue as to whose side they’re on. People will be denting in your car, and will get into fights with each other. And soon, you might find an opportunity to run away when you realise it’s not about you anymore. At this point, just let the mobs tear each other’s hair out.

So you see, you really don’t want to get into an accident in India. Or drive, for that matter. It’s just not worth it.

This post first appeared on Torque Affair. We welcome your comments at