Thursday, October 29, 2009

American vs Indian Driving Patterns: Visual vs Audio

Exasperated at the noisy, crowded city street, and at my cab driver who enthusiastically honked every five seconds, I instructed him not to honk any more as long as I was the passenger in his car. The driver was weaving his way gingerly through thick traffic in Chennai that consisted of cars, trucks, motorcycles, pedestrians, and the occasional domestic animal but no lanes. He reluctantly obliged until in about 30 secs., one of the hundreds of pedestrians lining the street edges stepped right in front of the car and almost got run over. "You bloody fool!" yelled the cab driver clearly upset and shaken by the close miss, "Did you say 'bye to your loved ones at home? Why did you have to pick my car?" he moaned mockingly. To my amazement, the pedestrian yelled back with elloborate hand gestures, "You idiot! Why the hell didn't you sound your horn when you saw me step in? Are you blind?" Now the cab driver turned to me and declared, "See madam! I almost killed that man because you told me not to honk!" I was speechless.....
Almost every foreign visitor to India complaints about how noisy the cities are.... this includes horns from thousands of vehicles seemingly honking for no obvious reasons, loudspeakers blasting movie songs from weddings, speeches from political gatherings, religious chantings from Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, and conversation of hundreds of thousands of pedestrians shopping from noisy vendors lining every nook and corner of major city streets. Nothing is organized or methodical including the complete lack of parking spaces that forces cars and the ever popular two-wheelers (motor bikes and scooters) to be parked anywhere there is a few inches or feet available. In short, almost every space is crowded, narrow-spaced, and chaotic and somehow hundreds of thousands of people manage to go to work, school, places of worship, and shop amongst the stray cows and dogs-ridden spaces and streets in the city! Taken altogether, the visual stimuli is an overload for almost all humans and animals!
It is most likely impossible for the eye to absorb and for the brain to instantaneously process even half of the stimuli around, and signal the body parts to react accordingly. There is just way too much happening around! Therefore, pedestrians and drivers are relying more on the audio cues and seemed to be desensitized and "deliberately" oblivious to the sights around them. For instance, at least half the cars have their side mirrors flipped in and drive with just the inside mirror, and even this one is sparingly used. Cars just barge in and pedestrians seem to just step into traffic and back away only after hearing a loud horn. Even young children barely wait to "look both sides" before stepping into the crowded streets.
The pattern of driving is very different in the US where horns are barely heard and drivers rely heavily on all the three mirrors while driving. From the first day of driving lessons, the 15 year olds are told by the instructors to adjust the mirrors first to get a clear, unhindered view of the street. Only after the the mirror is correctly adjusted and the seat belt is securely fastened is the ignition even turned on. Both of these Scriptural ordinances in the US, are given very low priority, or in the case of the seat belt, is almost non-existent in India. Traffic conditions are so different in both these countries that driving patterns have to be different to adjust accordingly.
In the US, most of the traffic consists of cars, a few buses and motorcycles, very few pedestrians, and no animals. Every driver is expected to drive within the clearly marked lanes, and constantly checks on the mirrors to merge in and out of different lanes. Usually there are no parked vehicles blocking lanes or even briefly interrupting the normal flow of traffic. In India, most of the traffic consists of motorbikes and scooters that squeeze into any available narrow space between the cars, trucks, and buses, with thousands of pedestrians on foot and a few stray cows and dogs trying to safely cross the streets. Traffic also includes vendors pushing heavy carts loaded with housewares, and bicycles and autorickshaws overloaded with people and or anything from hardware items to furniture, all of which interrupts the normal flow of traffic. Under these conditions, traffic is slow, disorganized and chaotic, and even when there are marked lanes, it seems to be just decorative! And, because there is so much visual stimuli, drivers and pedestrians have become desensitized to the sights around them and have come to rely upon audio cues. This is why traffic is so noisy in India, and so annoying to foreigners!
Post Script:
The animals, seems to have evolved one more step in this chaos.... they have become desensitized to the sights and sounds around them and seem to be relying on touch! The cows because of their size seems to be doing fine, with the traffic avoiding them at all cost and dangerously swerving to miss them.... but for the dogs this has very tragic consequences! Although not many of them die under the wheels, many of them are hurt badly and end up having a permanent limp that makes their survival much harder on the chaotic streets!