The Perils of Driving in India: One Man’s Quest for a Driver’s License

What happened—or didn’t—when Dilip D’Souza went to take his driving test for a new license terrified him. He writes about India’s terrible road safety record—and why he fears for his life.

In crisp khakis, the cop stands at the head of a raggedy line of about 20 of us aspirants. Each one reaches him, he scribbles something on their form, he waves them on to one of two cars beyond him. The line moves quickly, so I'm standing beside him before I've had time to ponder exactly what he's doing, and then I get my answer.

He asks my name, checks it, and writes "passed" on my form, and that's it. I'm stepping past him, waiting for the car. "That one", says someone else, and I walk over to the open driver's door, conscious that the cop's paying me no mind. He's already focused on writing "passed" on the guy behind me’s form.

In the passenger seat, there's a man, buttoned-down shirt and furrowed brow. He hisses, "Don't touch that!" as I reach to move the seat belt so I can sit down. So I sit, and he hisses, "Don't touch that!" as I put my hands on the steering wheel. So I leave the wheel alone and he hisses, "Don't touch that!" as I reach for the gear shift. So I rest my hands in my lap and he hisses, "Don't touch those!" as my feet move, of their own volition, as any driver's feet would, move towards the pedals.

So I sit there doing exactly nothing, and the car, apparently of its own volition though he's really operating it from his seat with his own set of pedals, moves forward about 10 yards, then backward about 10 yards, and then he tells me, "OK, you can go. Your test is over."

Thus have I passed my driving test to get myself a new Maharashtra (the state of which Mumbai is the capital) driver's license. I swear I am not making this up.

Also, and for probably obvious reasons, this "test" puts accidents in my mind.

India's Ministry of Road Transport and Highways compiles figures of accidents across this country into annual reports. The 2011report (PDF, 2MB) says that there were over 140,000 deaths on Indian roads that year, the highest such number in the world. About 13,000 of those people died on Maharashtra's roads: about what you'd expect given that Maharashtra has about a tenth of India's population. In turn, given that about a tenth of Maharashtra's people live in Mumbai, there should be about 1300 deaths every year in this city. Instead, Mumbai's annual toll is about 600. Not trivial, but less than half what you might expect. At least at first glance, is that a sign of how much safer Mumbai is than the rest of the state?

I don't know. I do know that driving on our highways, laced with swerving trucks and yahoos driving on the wrong side of the road, is always a heart-stopping business. And I do know my experience getting a license at the Regional Transport Office (RTO) makes me fear for my life every time I step on my city's roads. Look at it this way: that particular RTO has issued over two million licenses so far. That's two million men and women who, if they're anything like me, have passed a driving "test" in which the only point of contact with the car is their behind. Talk about seat-of-the-pants driving. How good are these guys at driving?

Of course each of us has our stories about bad drivers, with the implication, always, that we ourselves are faultless on the road.

Plenty to contest there. But when I think of people who have passed their driving tests like I did, people who now pilot speeding hulks of metal and glass that I'd prefer they did not even touch, the stories take on an altogether new hue. Every maniac who swerves to cut me off, every protagonist of every ghastly accident that's dissected on the front pages, every bozo who actually speeds up as my 79 year-old mother tries to cross our street: Now I know how these guys got their licenses.

Not that it makes me feel any better. We Indians are putting cars and trucks on our roads at an ever-dizzier pace: now nearly 3.5 million a year. That large number is dwarfed by the two-wheeler figure: another 13.5 million. (Six years ago, those numbers were 1.5 million and 7 million, respectively. There's no sign of the growth slowing).

Who drives all these vehicles? How are we ensuring that they can actually drive, and with reasonable care and consideration for others on the road? Or is that a futile question?

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Me? I can drive, I swear. I am putting myself through this process only because I lost my license in June.

The last time I took a driving test was over 30 years ago, when I first acquired a license. That time, a cop made me drive a few dozen yards in reverse gear and that was it. I've often recounted that story to make a point about the standards of these tests. But compared to my RTO experience, circa 2012, that was like taking a major college entrance examination. I try not to think of where standards will have slipped to in another 30 years.

And every facet of the episode told its own story. I lost my license, yes, but I managed to locate the number. Via a "driving school," I sent in an application for a duplicate to the RTO. Two months later, the manager of the school advised me to give up. "The records in the RTO," he said, "are stored in boxes. Sometimes a box falls off the shelf. Nobody has the time to put it back in order, so they just stuff all the records in a large sack. Yours must be in one of those. Believe me, nobody is going to search for it." Can I go search, I asked. He looked at me as if I was daft.

So my only option was to apply for an entirely new license.

The first step was a trip to the same RTO to take a test to see if I knew my road signs. Waiting in line, I studied the more obscure ones anxiously (hey, do you know your "Ferry Stop" and "Axle Limit"?). When my turn came, a cop in smart khakis pointed to three signs on a chart stuck on his desk, asking what they were. It wasn't too taxing to answer him, though not because I was a sign expert. The three names ("Narrow Road Ahead", "Left Turn Prohibited" and "Gap in Median") were helpfully printed there on his chart, immediately below the signs. So I could read them off to him. Which I did.

That test, done and dusted. The anxiety? Entirely misplaced.

Yet if I thought that test was absurd, a certain driving test lay ahead.