Saturday, February 12, 2005

Crosstown Traffic

As I mentioned before, traffic in Chennai is fascinating. I am having doubts about my theory of the 'look forward' rule, but it still seems to hold good 99% of the time. Last week on crossing over to Vedavani I was almost creamed by a motorbike driving on the wrong side of the road - and I don't mean just over the line, I mean I had just stepped away from the kerb.

Of course, I hadn't actually been walking on the pavement beforehand, as no-one here uses the pavement. Of course they don't. That's because the pavements are for crapping and pissing on! Once you work that one out, the side of the road becomes a much more pleasant prospect every time :-)

We've done a little bit more walking about of late - it's really much safer than it feels when you arrive. Everyone drives around you, at least I've only once seen someone who wasn't going to (another biker, coming towards me - at least he was going the right way this time). It's also worth bearing in mind that the traffic here does travel much closer, although the fact they squeeze into places with about a millimetre to spare can make things seem a lot more dangerous.

Red lights are also fascinating. The ones here have a timer to show how long until they turn green, and also how long until a green turns red. Sometimes, about 30 seconds before, the red light suddenly goes from meaning "stop" to "okay ifthere's nothing much coming just go ahead the crossraods anyway". Sometimes it happens about 20 seconds, sometimes about 10, though I haven't figured out what determines the exact figure. Maybe it's to do with the phase of the moon or something.

I've already mentioned u-turns, but they're kinda tame compared to my new favourite traffic manoeuvre - the pending-green queue jump. As the timer clicks down to about ten, stuck about 200 yards from the red light, Suresh has a cursory check that a 10-ton truck isn't bearing down on him from the wrong lane and moves out. He speeds up past the 200 yards of standing traffic, then cuts across the front end of it (often over a zebra crossing). By this time, the light turns red and off we go. And NOBODY bats an eyelid at this!

Zebra crossings are interesting. I suspect they mean nothing, and are useful for only one thing - spotting who the tourists are. I reckon the locals must wonder why the foreigners are drawn to the strange white markings on the roads. Maybe they're some sort of tourist trap that just hasn't been activated yet ;-)

But these examples, extreme though they may seem when taken out of context, do not prortray the truth of the traffic situation. Like all matters, you really need to look holistically at the subject in order to gain such an insight. After a few days of wide eyes at near-hits and narrowly-avoided-catastrophe's, you calm down and start to see the flow of the situation. And from the chaos, a sort of pattern appears. And a theory (unproven).

It seems to me that there is one simple rule here. You are responsible for moving out the way of everything that is in FRONT of you, and have NO responsibility of anything BEHIND you. Nobody uses their mirrors, in fact I notice many cars without any wing mirrors (by design, not accident). So if the guy in front of you decides to stop suddenly and do a u-turn without signal or warning, it is your responsibility to get around him or to stop. Drivers will hit their horn at such a sudden action, but rarely in anger, in warning of their presence.

And this would never work back home in the UK - traffic moves so much faster there, but in Chennai you rarely get much above 20 in the city streets, usually much less. Only the proximity of traffic coming from all angles and directions create the illusion of impending doom behind this highly logical and evolved driving scheme.

I mean, think about it! What dullard ever conceived of a driving system where you are responsible for the safety of drivers BEHIND you? Where are your eyes? At the FRONT of your head. Is it comfortable to turn round and look behind you? Does a cursory glance behind give you a good view of the road? Are rear-view and wing mirrors reliable, when distance distortion and blind spots are taken into account? So why do we do it? Just form the intention to turn right, indicate your intentions (optional phase) and, as Nike say, "Just Do It!"

Maybe when I return to the UK I'll form a campaign to enact forward view driving and more horn warnings. I hope not.