Staying Safe on India's Chaotic Roads and Buses

Experiencing the traffic in India is not for the faint hearted. Before you go, here are a few things to know about the roads and bus travel.

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A man rides a bike in India Photo © Julian Manrique, WhereNext.com

Road safety is a huge concern for travelers and locals in India.

In 2017, almost 150,000 people lost their lives on India's roads. The maintenance of roads, low standard of safety for vehicles on the roads, and ignorance towards road rules make driving here a challenge.

So, is it safe for travelers to hire a car and drive around India? Or are you better off using the public transport system?

Is it safe to drive in India?

Irresponsible driving habits, insufficient highway infrastructure development, and other hazards make traveling on India's roads a nerve wrecking (and potentially life threatening) experience.

Cows are holy in India, in fact, a whopping 30% of the world's cattle live here.

You will see cows casually ambling along main roads, sometimes blocking traffic, and all you can do is wait for them to meander out of the way. Or if you're traveling at high speeds (you or your driver, not the cow), swerve to avoid them.

Your first encounter with a typical Indian highway will no doubt feature a traffic mix of lumbering trucks, speeding maniacs, blithely wandering cows and unpredictable pedestrians – all weaving across a narrow, potholed strip of tarmac.

Most road signs are not very reliable in the country, and in most cases will give drivers very confusing or inaccurate information.

Travelers should be cautious when visiting villages and rural areas in the night. Bandits occasionally abduct and rob tourists, as they assume tourists possess large amounts of cash and items for them to re-sell. So try to safely check into your accommodation before it gets dark.

Even on India's buses you can run into problems. Think twice about taking night buses in rural areas, as bandits have been reported stopping night buses with fake checkpoints to rob everyone inside.

How to stay safe on India's buses

Problems on India's roads are bad, but there are a few mundane issues you will face onboard one of their buses.

Crowded train in India. Photo credit: Julián Manrique

Get yourself a window seat for access to fresh air, but be prepared for a face full of exhaust fumes as you stick your head out the window. If you see camels beside the road, beware of their spit – which you may catch from the window seat.

If you have an aisle seat on the bus, you'll have more leg room, but be prepared to have your toes stepped on and various objects shoved in your face whenever passengers load or unload.

Beware of items stowed above your head in the compartment – inevitably they will end up on your lap when the bus hits one of many potholes in the roads.

Traditions are different in India. The driver is fully within his rights to stop the bus every half hour so he can play a card game by the side of the road while you (and all the passengers) wait patiently on the bus.

With a population of over one billion, get used to being pushed and shoved when attempting to queue or board public transport in India. You'll soon learn to hold your ground.

While travelling on public transport, do not accept any food or drink from any fellow  passengers – even if they are very friendly or polite. There have been instances where the food and drink has been spiked.

Of course this is all assuming you have a ticket. Buying tickets for public transport is an epic experience, so be prepared.

While getting about India is not easy, it's also one of the best ways to see the countryside while experiencing all the tastes and smells of this amazing country.

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3 Comments

  • kaustubh said

    for buses you can use RED BUS services which is good and connect all major destinations.

  • On the bus to Dharamshala said

    I've travelled around a dozen times between Delhi and Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh and it's not nearly as bad as described above. I stay at Wongdhen House in Majnu ka Tilla where the hotel staff arrange the bus ticket - or there are travel agents' shops where you can easily buy one. The choice is between aircon and non-aircon buses. Personally I prefer non-aircon, as the aircon is invariably freezing on the ones I've used. If you get a seat near the front of the bus it makes for a better ride. The baggage is in the boot so the only hassle there is the struggle to get to your luggage when everyone gets off at the final destination - which on the D'asa/Delhi bus is always around 5am when you are not feeling your best. You stop for a meal on the way (have some coins handy to pay the toilet wallah) and usually also stop in the middle of the night for chai. Other toilet stops can be a bit problematical - in the middle of nowhere at times, so a torch is necessary. Take enough layers of clothing to keep warm as it gets colder there higher you climb into the mountains. On the aircon bus you get water and a blanket and the seats are marginally more comfortable, but be prepared for the aircon to be chilly all night. Bon voyage!

  • Clare said

    Cows are a minor problem...the roads are full.of unlicensed drivers without a clue about road rules. Undertaking overtaking...it's chaos and insanity on indian roads. Drunk drivers are common place...no seat belts...poorly built vehicles that crumple like tin cans...people chatting on phones as they drive and general aggressive driving speeding and idiots around.....really make the cows the least of the problems on indias roads.

    Certainly not kansas. ..more like a pot holed tarmac hell on which your chances of surviving are slim to none

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