It was total anarchy. No rules existed and if they did, no one obeyed them. After we whizzed by a couple of red octagon signs, I asked the driver, “Don’t people stop at stop signs?” Our Sikh driver replied in clipped English, “Not mandatory; suggestion only.” Well, this should be interesting, I thought to myself.
But I am starting in the middle; let me back up. My wife and I have just returned from a visit to India. We hired a car and driver for about $50 a day. India is one of the fastest growing countries in the world in terms of technology, gross national product, and population. India is expected to overtake China as most populated nation by 2035. India is growing and changing so fast that the ancient, old, new, and future can be seen all at once and is reflected in their transportation system. The diversity in their many different means of conveyances is reflective of the diversity and rapid change of their nation. In a typical traffic jam along a major highway with two lanes of travel each way between Delhi and Agra pressed together inches from one another were a tuk tuk (a three wheeled taxi), an oxen drawn wooden cart, a Toyota automobile, a bicycle rickshaw, and a motor bike. In or on these transports were a Sikh turban, a loincloth, a Western business suit, a burka, a hijab, and a woman tightly and completely swaddled in bright purple cloth from her ankles to the crown of her head with only a slit for her eyes to peer through as she gently rolled the throttle of her motor bike. After the traffic jam, our driver carefully weaved through camel drawn carts, Tata trucks, John Deere tractors, and a bicycle heavily laden with cans of milk for market. If there are rules of the road, they are honored only in the breach. I only saw one policeman giving a ticket; probably for signaling, as I am sure a turn signal light would startle and alarm Indian drivers.
Total chaos was my first reaction, but after a day or two I began to realize that everything worked just fine. The astounding thing was how few traffic incidents we observed during 8 days of travel on crowded roads and none appeared to involve any injury. My reaction slowly changed from chaos, to respect for the skill of the drivers, to admiration for the system and an appreciation for a system of self governance. Drivers cooperate with one another because it is in their self interest to do so. Cooperating with other drivers was the safest and fastest way to get to one’s destination. Indian drivers rely upon themselves rather than assuming someone else will behave according to some set of written rules. Certainly horns were honked but I sensed harmony instead of frustration.
We Americans, on the other hand, belong to a society of laws. Any theory of governance, if taken to its logical extreme will have absurd results. Perhaps we Americans have gone too far with all of our rules and regulations. In my view, we have gone from a “rule of law” to “there ought to be a law against it” nation. Every sad or disturbing story in the newspaper results in proposed legislation so that the “tragedy will never happen again.” In Washington, our laws governing crime and punishment are so voluminous and overlapping that our criminal law has become often incomprehensible. This court spends way too much of its time on double jeopardy issues, just to pick one of many possible examples, because any bad act will likely offend so many different laws that prosecutors and judges are never sure which and how many crimes should be charged. We constantly apply the maxim, “ignorance of the law is not an excuse.” But that doctrine was established when there were very few crimes and one could know the law. I must admit that I have never read the Koran or the entire Bible for that matter, but neither could be as voluminous, complex, or subject to different interpretations as our motor vehicle and criminal codes. And, it is only going to get worse.
So it was that I became amazed at how a very complex and diverse transportation system in India seemed to function so well in the absence of any discernible law. There was an inviting simplicity to how drivers conducted themselves and traffic flowed. Maybe we Americans should have fewer laws, automatically sunset old one, or show restraint before embracing new laws. Maybe the apparent simplicity of India’s traffic appealed to me because I have spent too much time as a jurist teasing out the meaning of laws or trying to determine when the application of one law ends and another begins.
On the other hand, maybe, as one who drives a 450 horsepower Dodge Viper and owns and operates four motorcycles, I just found joy in the lawlessness of the Indian traffic. Who knows?