Guest Commentary

Tucson drivers could learn a lesson or two from their counterparts in India

This time of year, when the snowbirds roam, we despair of getting from home to Park Place Mall.

Try driving in India. Should you drive a car yourself? Don't. If you take the train or bus, you may survive. But the way to go is to hire a driver with a car. For the whole day, it's about $100 American, less than a cab ride in Paris or a night out in Tucson. Even so, if you want to go from, say, Varanasi to New Delhi--get a grip.

Traffic in India is a huge river flowing as organically as Mother Ganges. Drivers there may be spiritually so far advanced over drivers in Pima County as to walk on water or fly like swans. Consider this: There are no stop signs, no stop lights (well, a few in Delhi), no speed limits, no traffic cops (again, a few in Delhi), no patrol cars and no seatbelts (required in Delhi but seldom used). Think about Speedway Boulevard with no red lights and left turn lanes. On the road, anybody can move anything anywhere, at any time, at any speed, including chickens, geese, pigs, goats, sheep, snakes, cows, buffalo, camels and elephants.

Almost every creature is sacred to somebody.

I have nightmares of camels on Stone Avenue carrying folks from Wisconsin to lunch.

No limits exist on loads carried by vehicles. Think about Sun Tran buses with people hanging out of windows and falling off the roofs. There are more cell phones per capita in India than in America, of course. While everybody carries them, no 911 exists to call, because there are no emergency vehicles to answer the distress calls.

Drivers operate at maximum speeds while using brakes and horns incessantly. Contrary to Western myth, horns are used with precision to ask the vehicle ahead to move so that you can pass. I never heard a horn used impatiently. Faster vehicles spend their time in right lanes (India drives to the left) passing slower traffic, zipping left to avoid oncoming collisions with seconds to spare.

Vehicles move within inches of each other. I could touch with an outstretched hand the fenders of autos or the bare thighs of the rickshaw drivers we passed. Try that on Oracle Road, and your arm will get chopped off. Many vehicles are in good working order; some barely make it down the block, but they are accorded the same space and patience as a cow asleep in the road. Talk about traffic gridlock on First Avenue!

During my time there, I never saw a collision or even a fender-bender. I witnessed three large trucks overturned on narrow roads due to overloading, but I never saw an ambulance. I never heard a siren wail. I never witnessed an angry driver showing his finger or clinching his fist. Everybody stopped while cows moved along their way, just as they did for a beggar on a bicycle loaded with sticks. Mistakes and screw-ups are waved off with a shrug. Radios blare pop tunes at full volume; everybody talks to everybody else all the time.

Since nobody has rules for anything, everybody looks out for everybody else, as if the jumble of people, animals and machinery was moving as a living river. Everybody is aware of what's happening to everything and everybody, just as the Buddha taught. They respond, accept and move on--in contrast to America, where our rules take care of everything, so we don't have to take care of anything.

Generalizations about India are shaky, and I don't pretend my corner represents it all. I may also exaggerate a little; collisions and lives lost are growing as Indian wealth grows, but they are a fraction of those in America.

Somewhere in the thicket of Tucson's concerns about national security and personal rights is a conclusion we could draw about taking care of each other. If my driver Bablu lets a chicken across the road to Varanasi, can we allow a muscle car with teenagers or old folks in a Ford from Chicago to cut in front of us on Country Club Road with a smile and a wave of hands. Corny, maybe, but it could be catching.

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