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How to Drive in India for Foreigners (India’s Unofficial Road Rules)

I never thought I’d drive in India. Driving in India looked too chaotic and dangerous. “I’d rather let someone experienced drive for me,” I thought. But after living here a while I realised, like at home in the West, I love driving and riding a motorcycle and the freedom they give me. If I wanted to travel around Delhi and India to the beat of my own drum, I needed to learn to drive in India.

Driving in India may seem daunting for a foreigner. It looks like everyone is driving all over the place, no rules, no safety, oh and the animals you must avoid hitting! After a while, you get used to it, and it takes more and more to shock you.

The last memorable thing I witnessed was both lanes blocked by a car that was being overtaken by a truck, and that truck was being passed by a bus at the same time!

But never fear, India’s Unofficial Road Rules will help you tackle driving here like a local

India’s Unofficial Road Rules

  1. You don’t have to drive like a maniac. While travelling in India, you’ll have, what seem to us foreigners, a fair share of death-defying experiences with taxi or rickshaw drivers. They love to drive on the wrong side of the road and overtake on residential streets. But not everyone drives like that, and you don’t have to either! You’re perfectly fine driving slower and sanely.
  2. Take it slow and be alert. Don’t speed in India. Things jump in front of you continuously while driving here: people, animals, cars, buses, and motorcycles. You need to be alert, and you need to readjust your course when driving here, taking it slow allows this.
  3. Buses and trucks are kings of the road. Give them the right of way and at intersections watch for buses and trucks because they do not give way. They just plough through intersections, especially buses.
  4. Lanes don’t apply. No one uses lanes in India. Lanes are fluid here. If you’re in the right lane, you’re going to get stuck behind people stopping to turn right regularly. Stay in the centre or left lanes when travelling straight.
The footpath is an additional lane in India. Photo © Karl Rock, all rights reserved
The footpath is an additional lane in India. Photo © Karl Rock, all rights reserved.
  • Adjust your mirrors. Every time you get in your car make sure your rear view and side mirrors are adjusted so you can see around your vehicle while driving. While driving in India you can’t put your mind on auto-pilot, you’ll need to be constantly scanning for hazards.
  • Beep your horn. Passing someone? Beep your horn, so they know you’re passing. Beep your horn whenever you need to make someone aware you’re close to their car. Or they simply won’t know you’re there and may drift into you.
  • Ignore the horn. People are going to beep at you if you’re driving a bit slow or taking your time manoeuvring. Ignore them. It’s not like in the West where beeping your horn is considered an insult. Beeping is normal here and usually means “move, I’m passing you”, don’t let it make you feel under pressure.
  • Don’t trust traffic lights. Traffic lights are only respected in certain areas that are highly policed. Always look and beep your horn when travelling straight through intersections and traffic lights (especially at night when lights are ignored even more). If stopped at a light, before going make sure you check all directions.
  • Wear your seatbelt. While many Indians don’t bother wearing seat belts, and may not even have them working in their car, you should always wear your seatbelt in India – for obvious reasons.
  • Dings happen. Don’t worry about small dings with other vehicles. It happens, and most Indians are relaxed about it. You’ll notice most Indian cars are scratched or dented. That’s the nature of driving here when everyone is trying to fit through small spaces in traffic to get a little further ahead.
  • Petrol Pump Etiquette

    Indian Oil petrol station in India. Photo by Paul Hamilton.
    Indian Oil petrol station in India. Photo by Paul Hamilton.

    In India, you never pump your own gas. I found this out one day when I went on a motorcycle ride with an Indian friend in New Zealand. I assumed he knew how to fill up his bike’s gas tank. He ended up spilling petrol all over the reservoir. Little did I know, it was his first time pumping fuel!

    Gas stations are lined with attendants that will do it for you. Just pull up to a pump and tell the attendant petrol or diesel and the amount you want in rupees (not litres/gallons).

    The final rule is to relax. After driving around for an hour you’ll quickly get your bearings and realise that while driving here is different, it’s not difficult.

    By Karl Rock

    Karl Rock, is a Hindi speaking Kiwi ex-pat who take viewers behind the scenes of incredible India and its neighbours. He has visited every state and union territory in India, and its culturally similar neighbours – Pakistan and Bangladesh, and aims to make others fall in love with India and the subcontinent.

    4 replies on “How to Drive in India for Foreigners (India’s Unofficial Road Rules)”

    Thank you, very informative
    I am planning on a motorcycle ride to Kashmir, maybe Leh
    I’m nervous about high altitude passes and have YouTubed kashmir videos, looks amazing
    I am going to rent, my wife is coming , won’t drive, so looking on what bike to choose.
    A Royal Enfield 650cc
    Or a Triumph Tiger 800cc
    I’m in the US and from Ireland
    Any advice?

    Hi Brian! Do you mean your wife will ride as a pillion? Then you’d want to go for the Tiger. The Royal Enfields are too uncomfortable and underpowered for 2 people. My RE Himalayan struggled just with me on it on the mountain passes. Have a great trip.

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