One Plausible Reason Why Indians Love Honking Horns

May 13 2014, 4:41pm CDT | by

A few things will jump out at foreigners when they first arrive in India. One is the mass of people, and the unavoidable poverty. Over 70% of Mumbai residents live in slums, or are homeless.  Another sight will be the sacred cow roaming two-lane streets here and there. But perhaps the most unique cultural takeaway from India — even more than Bollywood and cricket fanaticism — is the car horn.  Indians honk like nobody’s business.

“I don’t know why they beep so much,” says P.J. Singh, a general manager at a Tata Motors truck manufacturing plant in Jamshedpur, a city of roughly 573,000.

Let’s face it, India runs on organized chaos and there’s no better place than the road to see that bedlam in action.

No matter what they’re driving, a motorbike, a three-wheel auto-rickshaw, or a 40 year old Tata Motors truck, the horn is as important as the gas pedal. It may be more important than the brakes.  And I think I know why Indians use the car horn so much; it’s the complete disregard for side mirrors.  No one uses them. Some trucks don’t even have them. Others have their mirrors pushed closer to the vehicle because to extend them outward could invite a collision with another driver.  Cars are so close to one another on the road that mirrors simply take up too much space.  So with that in mind, truckers behind the wheel of India’s ancient truck fleet — at least 40 years old according to Singh — invite drivers to honk as a means to advise them that they are about to pass.

Why don’t you just make better side view mirrors, I ask Singh.  He laughs it off.  ”We have a new fleet of trucks coming out in India. They’ll be safer, more modern,” he says.  ”I don’t think people are honking because of the side mirrors.”

Eradicating the horn phenomenon is going to take more than a modern truck fleet, though.  This is a habit now for Indian motorists. Once, I saw a new Suzuki sedan pulling out of an office parking lot with its side mirrors folded shut.

“People need to be educated on how bad this noise pollution is,” says Vijay Agarwal from Hyderabad.  He drives, but says he uses his horn as little as possible.  ”It’s all about driver’s being impatient. But when I walk the streets and I hear a horn, I pay attention because you never know what they are honking about,” Agarwal says.

For a young country that seems ready to dive into the 21st Century, much of India appears 50 years behind the times.  On route 33 from Ranchi to Jamshedpur, small villages are set up along the road. Two people squat down in a make-shift shelter made out of bamboo and tarpaulin. Boys in their early teens pick at a downed tree with an ax. Women gather long tree branches for firewood as girls work water wells.  In other words, the living conditions here are light years from the likes of Reliance billionaire Anil Ambani. It’s the usual global poorhouse-flare: tin roofs, no windows, brick and clay walls and stray dogs jogging by the front door as someone cooks pav bhaji in a large saute pan over an outdoor fire.

A few feet away, on route 33, it’s the quintessential Indian scene, unchanged for decades — five people on a motorbike without a helmet; a two year old in the front seat, an older kid in the back with a shirt misprinted to read “Feel it in Your Hearj”.  I ask my driver how it can be that no one ever falls off these bikes.  He assures me that they are all “very skilled”.

Zooming in and out of this scenery are the three-wheeling rickshaws and colorful trucks with their mirrors non existent or a little larger than a make-up mirror.  To get around them, you’ll have to beep.  It’s a wonder there are no dead bodies or twisted metal on the street.  A Muslim man falls off a moped, dusts off his white robe, and hops back into traffic puttering along with the masses.

Very skilled. My driver is correct.

“Honking gives every driver the belief that somehow they will mitigate the risk of a collision,” says Gunjan Bagla.

Briefcase, a Mumbai based design firm, is trying to train drivers to ease off the honking.

Their “Project Bleep” involves a little red button on the dashboard that beeps and flashes with a frowning face to make drivers aware that they honked.  After testing the device on 30 drivers over six months, Briefcase found an average 61% reduction in honking.

“The average Indian has grown up with honking, so they don’t understand the question when an American visitor asks about it,” says Bagla, an Indian consultant with offices in California. “It’s like my relatives from India who  come to the U.S. and ask me ‘where are all the people’ when they take a walk in my neighborhood.”

India's Honk Ok Please Phenomenon

 
 

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