Driving in India: Is it chaos or an excellent example of crowdsourcing?

Most Westerners who experience driving in India think of it as chaos. After experiencing driving and traffic in Mumbai and Chennai, India for the last two weeks, I have concluded that this assessment is completely wrong. Driving in India is a remarkable example of crowdsourcing. In fact, within just a few hours of being in Mumbai, I was able to see very specific and incredibly well-organized patterns in the traffic. They aren’t Western notions of traffic and driving, but they are definitely a sophisticated form of crowdsourcing. There are three key parts to this pattern:

  1. 1. Each individual Indian driver is expected to optimize use of available road space. This means that whenever there is a way to better use this space, they move into the space. It’s really about each individual contributing to a social good by their specific behavior. For example, if there are two traffic lanes painted on the road, but there’s plenty of room to squeeze in three to five additional vehicles, Indian drivers will do just that, with every possible vehicle using every inch of space. It’s actually a really smart way to function.
  1. 2. Each individual Indian driver deeply understands and respects everyone else’s goal of optimizing available road space and is actually quite civil and courteous toward other drivers trying to optimize space utilization. For example, if there’s a small space open ahead and two possible vehicles could fit into the space, and both vehicles start to move for the space, the one with the lesser fit will yield to the one with the better fit. Most importantly, the yielding is done without the anger and frustration found on American roadways. It seems to be a notion of contributing to the greater good of space optimization.
  1. 3.There’s a very sophisticated and effective means of communication using honking to verify others’ intent. I detected at least six specific kinds of honks that communicated how the space would be optimized:

There’s a honk for pedestrians in the street. When a pedestrian is crossing in front of an available space for a car, the driver will honk to indicate that they are moving into that space. In many cases, the pedestrian would dispute the vehicle’s ownership of the space by looking away and continuing to cross. This is a very risky strategy, but the meaning behind the honk is quite clear.   There’s a honk for squeezing more cars across the road. This is when there are lanes painted on the road, but there’s plenty of room to squeeze in more vehicles.   There’s a honk that signals to the other vehicles that the driver is going to try to squeeze into the group and that they should move over. Drivers are amazingly courteous about making room. The record I saw was six vehicles including a big bus, plus about 10 motorcycles across a three-lane road. Very impressive.

There’s a honk declaring an intention of moving into an open space ahead, one that others might be interested in moving into as well. This honk says: “I am moving into this open space.” Usually it’s met with a return honk that means: “No, I am moving into that space.” This process can go through two to three rounds until one of the participants realizes that the other’s claim to the space is actually better and yields, although usually at the last minute and often with only about six inches to spare.   There’s a honk for passing a vehicle that you’re overtaking, but still staying on your side of the road (see below for the variation on this one). This typically occurs when an Indian driver is optimizing their options by riding right down the middle of the road, usually straddling two lanes. This honk says: “Move over, I am passing you in something resembling a real lane.”

There’s a honk for passing a car by pulling into oncoming traffic. This is one of my favorites. Picture a scenario when your lane is full, but the lane in the other direction only has a motorcycle or an auto rickshaw coming your way. This honk means I am pulling into oncoming traffic and the traffic on my side should more over and the traffic coming on a direct collision course should also move over. The social part of this is that both parties always seem to move. One time our driver did this with a really big oncoming bus. So, of course, he slammed on the accelerator and pulled back into traffic with easily two feet to spare—no sweat.

Lastly, there’s a honk for cutting across multiple lanes of oncoming traffic to make a turn. Usually there are many cars trying to make the same turn. This honk tells the oncoming cars that the turning cars are about to cut them off. So, be ready to stop.

There are two variations of this one. First, the honk that says: “I see that several cars are turning and I am going to sneak in underneath them.” For the other cars, this means beware and don’t swing too tightly, squeezing more vehicles into the turn.

The second variation is the return honk from the oncoming traffic that says: “No way are you turning in front of me.” Once again, the least optimal participant will yield.

Feeling confident that I had mastered the intricacies of Indian traffic, I suggested to my colleagues that I could now drive there and asked if I could use one of their vehicles. In particular, I wanted to try driving an auto rickshaw. Funny, but I would not call their response encouraging. They thought my theories were great and actually quite accurate, but they said that I would almost certainly be killed in a matter of minutes. Hmmmm… I wonder what my wife would say to that idea?  ]]>

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