What Is the Highway Code of India?

By Ralph Velasco

Did you know there’s a Highway Code of India?

On my first trip to India’s Golden Triangle (an area bounded by Delhi, Agra & Jaipur) our local guide on the group tour part of the trip (I stayed for four more days on my own), was a very affable man named Anil.  During a bus ride he read us the following very humorous 12 articles known as The Highway Code of India.  

With a few very minor updates he was kind enough to give me permission to reprint it.

Is It the “Right” Side, or the “Other” Side?

Having spent 11 days in India on that trip, I can verify that what Anil outlines is funny, but unsurprisingly true, and there’s little exaggeration at all.  

For an experienced traveler like myself, from a country where we drive on the “right” side of the road, the traffic in India is absolutely mind boggling, to be sure, and an assault on all of the senses, but the truth is it somehow works.

Bus driver navigating the streets and traffic of Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco

Just Try Crossing the Street

That said, simply trying to cross the street can be an effort in that one needs to really think about which way to look first, because in India they drive on the “other” (left) side of the road compared to what I’m used to.

Let me know what you think.

Massive traffic in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco
It can be a real effort crossing the street in a place like Delhi.

Article I: The assumption of immortality is required of all road users.

Women laughing on rickshaw in traffic in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco
Two women enjoy a rickshaw ride in Delhi traffic.

Article II: India traffic, like Indian society, is structured on the caste system. 

The following precedence must be adhered to at all times.  In descending order, give way to:

  1. Cows
  2. Elephants
  3. Camels
  4. Buffalo
  5. Pigs and goats
  6. Dogs
  7. Heavy trucks
  8. Buses
  9. Official cars
  10. Pedal rickshaws
  11. Private cars
  12. Motorcycles
  13. Scooters
  14. Auto-rickshaws
  15. Handcarts
  16. Pedestrians
Painted cow pulling cart on empty street in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco

Article III: All wheeled vehicles shall be driven in accordance with the maxim:

“To slow is to falter, to brake is to fail, to stop is defeat.” 

This is clearly the maxim of all Indian drivers.

Cow on the road with big bus in Agra, India by Ralph Velasco
Cows are #1 on the list of those with right of way on Indian roads.

Article IV: Use of horn (also known as the sonic fender, or the language of the road).

Cars: Short blasts (urgent) indicate supremacy, i.e. in clearing dogs, rickshaws and pedestrians from path. 

Long blasts (desperate) denote supplication, i.e., to oncoming trucks (as in, “I’m going too fast to stop, so unless you slow down, we both shall die.”).  In extreme cases this may be accompanied by flashing headlights (frantic).

Single blast (casual) means: “I have seen someone out of India’s one billion-plus whom I recognize,” or “There is a bird in the road which at this speed could go through my windscreen,” or “I have not blown my horn in several minutes.” 

Trucks and buses: All horn signals have the same meaning: “I have an all-up weight of approximately 12.5 tons and have no intention of stopping, even if I could.”  This signal may be emphasized by the use of headlamps.

Blow horn on back of truck in Jaipur, India by Ralph Velasco
Almost every big truck encourages those overtaking to blow their horn.

Article V: All maneuvers, use of horn and evasive action shall be left until the last possible moment.

Have you been to Morocco, and/or been on a camel in any desert?

Box vendor crossing street in Agra, India by Ralph Velasco
A box vendor takes his life into his own hands as he crosses the street.

Article VI: In the absence of seat belts (which there is) car occupants shall wear garlands of marigolds, which, of course, should be kept fastened at all times.

Be sure to buckle your marigolds!

Reverence for marigolds can be found throughout the world and especially in many religions, including Hindu, Buddhist and Catholic celebrations.

Man with handful of marigolds in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco
A marigold vendor holds up a handful of his wares.
Man offering a single marigold at the Spice Market in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco
Man offering me a marigold at the Spice Market in Delhi, India.

Article VII: Rights of way.

Traffic entering a road from the left has priority. So has traffic from the right, and also traffic from the middle. 

Lane discipline: All Indian traffic, at all times and irrespective of direction or travel, shall occupy the center of the road.

A peek through the bus window and the traffic in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco
This is a driver's perspective of traffic in Delhi.

Article VIII: Traffic management: It’s a jungle out there. 

Apparent traffic islands in the middle of crossroads have no traffic management function.  Any other impression should be ignored.

Traffic island in Agra, India by Ralph Velasco
These traffic islands are meant to be manned by police to help direct traffic.

Article IX: Overtaking is mandatory. 

Every moving vehicle is required to overtake every other vehicle, irrespective of whether it has just overtaken you. 

Overtaking should only be undertaken in suitable conditions, such as in the face of oncoming traffic, blind bends at junctions and in the middle of villages and city centers. 

No more than two inches should be allowed between your vehicle and the one in front of you (one inch for bicycles and pedestrians).

Tricycle bike with stacked hay in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco
Local advice says to just go, don't hesitate. Traffic will flow around you.

Article X: Nirvana may be obtained through the head-on crash.

Man with rickshaw stacked with car part in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco
Stand there long enough and you'll see every kind of item go by.

Article XI: Reversing: What’s this? 

Not many drivers in India like to use this gear.  It’s simply not in their driver’s mantra.

Man in spice market with rickshaw and marigolds hanging in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco
This rickshaw driver was able to find a rare quiet part of the street.

Article XII: The 10th incarnation of God was an articulated tanker.

Marigold display with offerings in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco
Marigolds are considered pure and are a popular religious symbol throughout the world.

A Driver’s Code of Ethics for India

So, there you have it, a driver’s code of ethics for India, by an Indian.

If you ever have an opportunity to travel to this fascinating country – and I highly recommend that you do – you’re certain to get a taste, ear full, eye full, smell, and feel, for the infamous traffic encountered in most cities, and you’ll experience what arguably might be some of the best drivers in the world.

Not Even a Fender Bender.

Over the years now I’ve probably spent the equivalent of several months in India and I’m glad to say I don’t think I ever saw so much as a fender bender.

And none of our drivers ever raised their voices with road rage…but they do all adhere to the “rule” of honking the horn to let others know where they are…but this, of course, was all in our own best interest.

Fruit vendor with cart in Delhi, India by Ralph Velasco
A fruit vendor winds his way through Delhi traffic.

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