Traffic Lessons From India

“If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.” – Winston Churchill

“Oh m’god,” Paula shouted. “Watch out for the cow!”

“The man’s a professional,” Rob said. “Let him do his job.

Rob was right. Without braking, our driver deftly maneuvered the van around the cow and between a rickshaw and two motorcycles. Our guide continued talking calmly as the driver raced the vehicle through the immensely crowded boulevard from our hotel to the old city of Jaipur.

If you have never driven down a crowded street in India, you can’t really understand the capacity of people to solve problems for themselves.

Take traffic, for instance.

In the U.S., we keep traffic moving and safe with a combination of technology (traffic lights, radar, etc.) and law enforcement. It seems to work reasonably well – except on busy thoroughfares. And when it doesn’t work, we attempt to fix it by adding more technology (computerized traffic scanners) and regulations. (According to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, nearly 1,500 new traffic laws were debated by lawmakers in 2006. Almost 200 became law, involving subjects such as aggressive and distracted driving, speed limits, and pedestrian safety.)

In India, they do things very differently. In the two cities I have visited so far, Udaipur and Jaipur, I haven’t seen a single traffic light. Not even a stop sign. If they have rules, there are very few of them. And any rules that may exist are routinely ignored.

For example, this afternoon there were all of the following moving objects on the road we were using: cars, vans, trucks, and buses; rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, and oxcarts; plus horses, cows, bulls, camels, elephants, and thousands of pedestrians. All of them moving at their own pace without any regard to the indicated lanes. (Yes, there were very faint lane demarcations on the pavement.) Some were moving lethargically (the cows, in particular). Some were moving with a purpose. And some, like the van we were riding in, were whipping along at what seemed to be a reckless speed. Most were going in one direction, but some were crossing the flow. And some were moving against it.

“This is sheer insanity,” Paula said. “But it works!”

The road was a ribbon of madness, to paraphrase Alfred Noyes, yet the traffic kept moving. A thousand near collisions were narrowly avoided as we sped along, yet none occurred. And nobody seemed the least bit flustered.

I have reported on this phenomenon before in ETR – when I was writing from Rome. But the chaos of Italy’s roads pales compared to India’s, if only because there are so few camels, cows, and elephants on them.

What is remarkable is not the chaos but how well traffic works in India. My guidebook says that traffic accidents are a problem in this country. But if that is so, I haven’t seen it. What I see is an amazingly proficient system of getting from here to there – at your own pace and in your own way, without traffic lights or cops or any appearance of regulation.

How can that be?

There is only one possible answer: People (and animals) here are much better at avoiding accidents. Without vehicular permits or driving schools, Indians know how to get around without getting hit. They are adept at cutting in and out of traffic, accelerating quickly, and stopping on a dime. They are much more aware of the danger around them, because they have to be.

In the Western world, we expect others to follow the rules, and this allows us to relax our guard. We crank up the iPod and talk on our cellphone and don’t worry so much about traffic. When other people violate the rules or ignore the technology that is designed to protect us, we are surprised by it. And then we have problems. Fender benders. Chain collisions. Cursing. Shouting. Road rage.

“In India, we don’t get excited if we have an accident,” our guide explained. “It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does everyone is polite. We take our bumps and move along.”

There is a school of thought that says the best government is that which governs least. In theory, I believe that to be true. In practice, I sometimes have trouble with the concept. When I hear news of some terrible thing that has happened – high school children shooting each other, for example – my first instinct is to pass a law. But my experience here in India demonstrates how unnecessary that may be.

Human life is so complex. Even more complex than city traffic. Believing that we can prescribe order with laws and technology is a sort of arrogance. Sometimes it’s better to let people figure things out on their own.

This idea may seem loony to you, sitting as you are in a modern city. But there is science behind it. Studies have shown that animals as unintelligent as ants can devise enormously complex systems for navigation and commerce by simply doing, on a collective basis, what each particular ant wants to do on its own. As Bill Bonner always says to me when I suggest some new rule to settle some business problem: “Why don’t we do nothing and see if they can figure out a solution on their own?”

And they usually do.

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