“Be careful; it’s like a warzone out there.”
As grateful as I was for the advice, it wasn’t the most reassuring thing to hear before my first trip behind the wheel in a country that is, quite possibly, the most dangerous in the world to drive in.
I was in a Maruti Celerio, a car I’m familiar with in the UK under the Suzuki badge. But with all the horror stories of Indian roads ringing around my head, I wasn’t feeling too confident as I shakily reached for the key and followed my Autocar India colleagues in convoy from Pune to Mumbai, at night, after the Car of the Year shoot.
For many reading this, driving in India is as natural as breathing, but for an uncultured Englishman like myself, my first time on the roads here felt like being thrown into a real-life version of Mario Kart.
Out on the expressway it was a free-for-all, as traffic filled with vehicles of extremely questionable levels of road-worthiness jostled for position to a soundtrack of incessant horn blaring.
But amid the mayhem, I made a few observations: undertaking is a way of life, constant use of the horn is mandatory, and lane discipline is an ancient myth. Once I accepted those facts, it began to almost make sense.
Perhaps the biggest annoyance of all was cars either having no headlights whatsoever, or, having headlights and only using them on full beam. This meant cars behind me – as well as the oncoming traffic – were obliterating my retinas while moving obstacles without any headlights hid in the darkness ahead, occasionally materialising from nowhere – some travelling towards me.
However for all the pandemonium and random swerving, the roads are a kind of orchestrated bedlam, like a balletic drunken dance. Everyone is roughly on the same page and everyone drives the same way, so most are prepared for every hazard – even when that hazard is several pedestrians appearing on the expressway, or a lorry deciding to pull into your ‘lane’ as you overtake it, or a herd of cattle casually wandering into your path.
Entering the roads with a stubborn English mindset assuming law and order will prevail will only end in catastrophe. In the warzone, instinct is your only friend.
I eventually got into the swing of things, with enthusiastic honking and shameless undertaking, and even began to enjoy the anarchy of it, albeit with an underlying sense of terror.
I made it back with the Celerio’s panels – and my limbs – still intact, and the hatchback showed, in its natural habitat on Indian roads, why it’s so popular in the country. Sure the diesel engine is ropey, but it’s well suited to weaving through the traffic, and because most other things on the road are chronically slow it made easy work of zipping past them to slightly safer ground.
The drive also got me thinking about whether autonomous cars have any place in India's future.
Manufacturers are laying out plans to introduce self-driving cars in the UK over the next few years – but there is surely no system capable of operating safely on Indian roads without a savvy driver assuming ultimate control.
Emergency braking and evasive manoeuvres are necessary every kilometre, and lanes rarely exist; so self-driving cars won’t be making a debut in India until a complete overhaul of road quality and national driving standards takes place.
When the technology does arrive, I have maximum respect for anyone who puts themselves forward for that first prototype test drive. I don't think it will be me.