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New Delhi Motorists Drive With Their Ears


If you're not enjoying your commute this morning, we offer this consolation. It could be worse. You could be driving in India.



So we're going to examine some driving habits abroad. In a moment we'll hear about Spanish drivers. They were once among the most dangerous in Europe, but they seem to be getting better.

SHAPIRO: First to India, to learn how motorists like to drive with their ears. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

(Soundbite of car horn)

PHILIP REEVES: Venture into the traffic of New Delhi and you find yourself in the middle of a kind of non-stop conversation. You're surrounded by the sound of cars chatting with one another. There's a volley of beeps behind your right shoulder. That's a motorcyclist letting you know that he's overtaking you on the inside.

(Soundbite of car horn)


REEVES: Behind your left shoulder, a taxi is lumbering past. Everyone does it. Trucks carry signs that say Please Use Horn. You see, New Delhi's a city that drives with its ears.

This conversation isn't aggressive or nasty. It's just to let your fellow motorists know that you're there. In drab law-abiding countries like Norway, drivers use their eyes and actually look out for approaching vehicles, but Delhi's drivers typically fold in their side mirrors to avoid scratches, use their rear-view mirrors to admire themselves, stare straight ahead, and listen.

(Soundbite of car horn)

REEVES: You could argue that driving with your ears doesn't work too well. More than 100,000 people died on India's roads last year, and you don't have to drive around for long in Delhi before you see a crash. In recent years the number of vehicles in the city has grown rapidly. So it's been getting noisier.

Mr. RAVI KALRA (Activist): I call it - it's like a cancer in the system. It's like a crime. It's like a sickness. It has to go away.

REEVES: So it really drives you nuts...

Mr. KALRA: It really drives me nuts. I tell you, I can't bear it.

REEVES: Ravi Kalra is a social activist born and brought up in Delhi. He runs an environmental group. He's against the whole idea of driving with your ears. He hates the non-stop honking and thinks most of it is pointless noise pollution. So he intends to stop it.

Mr. KALRA: Day and night, I've been injecting myself with this particular cause, and I'm ready to dive in. I just need time, that's all.

(Soundbite of hammering)

REEVES: In the garden outside Kalra's office, workmen knock together some wooden billboards. They've made a big pile of them. These boards carry pictures of Kalra's young son and even younger daughter, covering their ears with their hands and appealing to people not to honk, or horn as Kalra sometimes calls it.

Without asking anyone's permission, Kalra is plastering India's capital with these boards. He hopes they'll persuade drivers to behave as he does and use their eyes.

Mr. KALRA: I myself have been driving for the last 20 years, and trust me, I have never ever horned.

REEVES: You have never used your...

Mr. KALRA: Never ever in my life I have horned in my life.

REEVES: Kalra has tried other methods of persuasion, like the time he took on a honker face to face.

Mr. KALRA: So he was honking. Maybe he was in rush. So I opened up my car window and I give him hand. I said, My friend, you see a traffic jam, you don't need to horn. Nobody can move. We are all ceased. So he started abusing.

REEVES: Abusing you?

Mr. KALRA: Abusing me with the dirty Indian words.

REEVES: The honker didn't back off.

Mr. KALRA: He was really going bad. He went to his car and brought an iron rod with it, you know. So when he was (unintelligible), I had to - like this. I had to kick him (unintelligible)…like this, like this, and like this.

REEVES: Kalra's foot flies up. When you're championing a cause like this, it helps to be able to kickbox, just to make sure the motorists of Delhi are listening.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.