I had heard before visiting India that its cities were famous for having loud, aggressive drivers. But that point really hit home my first afternoon in Mumbai, when I checked into a hotel room facing the street. The cacophony of horns continued all day and through much of the night, then resumed 6am the next morning.
I’ve found similar “honking culture” in other Indian cities, such as New Delhi and Gurgaon, and frankly every Third World stop during my 1.5-year tour of the Global South. While there are many factors I outline below, the main one is general lawlessness. Third World countries just don’t have much traffic enforcement, and I’ll spend this article and next Monday’s outlining the good and bad from that.
While excessive car horns are a common irritation in select U.S. cities, they pale in comparison to India. Columnist Palash Krishna Mehrorta explains that honking is deeply ingrained in the country’s driving culture.
“At traffic lights, everyone starts honking as soon as the lights turn green,” writes Mehrotra, “as if those in front are visually challenged and haven’t noticed the changes in colour on the signal post.”
He draws a distinction between Western cultures, where honking is used to show displeasure, and India, where it’s used for numerous reasons, most of them devoid of malice. Having stayed in the country several weeks, I can list a few reasons myself, many of which apply to other Third World countries:
Taxi advertising: when taximen pass a pedestrian on the street and want to advertise their services (in India most of them drive rickshaws) they honk. Numerous times I have entered a taxi precisely because I needed one and they alerted me, proving that the tactic works.
Protection of self and others: many drivers in India don’t use mirrors. The trucks on the road in particular are old, and often lack them outright. As a result, many truck drivers have painted “horn please” on their vehicle trunks, seemingly asking drivers to indicate their presence by honking (for example if they’re about to pass).
Notification of entry: particularly in India’s working-class areas, streets are narrow and crowded with pedestrians. Yet motorbikes fly through, turning corners and veering between the crowds. They honk the whole time to notify people of their presence. But it happens on standard Indian roads, too, which lack the same protective infrastructure that Western roads have. The Hindustan Times writes, “At least 75% of Delhi’s pedestrian facilities do not follow international standards of road safety,” and pedestrians accounted for 46% of auto incident-related deaths. Drivers try to avoid this problem by honking when around pedestrians.
Friendliness: I find that in Third World neighborhoods, much more than the U.S., people know each other. A small minority of honking is just someone in a car spotting a friend or business associate on the street, and honking hello as they pass.
General habit: more to the point above about when lights turn green, some drivers honk just to honk—what Mehrotra calls “horniness”. Some honk every minute just out of habit. Part of this boils down to the stress of driving in India. Mumbai and Bangalore rank as the world’s 5th- and 10th-most congested cities. Mumbai drivers wait in traffic for a cumulative annual equivalent of over eight days. There’s a perception that without honking, a driver won’t be able to wade through the mess, which is why Indians pay more for louder horns.
While reasonable people can disagree about the validity of these different excuses, there’s no arguing the impact on India’s urban quality of life. Authorities claim that the sound on average reaches 100 decibels, equivalent to a leaf blower, but in some cases 125 decibels, louder than a rock concert.
Authorities have attempted to reduce honking. At one point, they banned the “horn please” sign. They’ve also turned to technological solutions: Mumbai piloted traffic lights that could detect noise levels to delay the switch from red to green when people honk. One company even developed tech that notifies the police by triggering tail-light flashes when a driver has honked incessantly. But truly wiping out the problem seems impossible, because honking is ingrained in the culture, and Indian governments don’t have true enforcement capacity, just as they don’t have capacity to do other things, such as provide reliable electricity and trash pickup.
It’s hard, from a libertarian perspective, to come down hard one way or another on the issue. On one hand, honking is an obvious externality—noise pollution—and in a better-organized society the people doing it would be fined (“polluter pays” principle). On the other, honking has some obvious practical advantages that make life run smoother in India.
For better or worse, India’s “horniness” shows a bottom-up adaptation to unique conditions within an environment absent of formal rules. That describes many other Third World cities. Next week I’ll cover another feature—this one more obviously beneficial—that results from this rules-free traffic environment within India.
Cover image use authorized under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license.
Graphic credit: The Market Urbanist.
Catalyst articles by Scott Beyer | Full Biography and Publications