India: Skip the traffic - take a tuk-tuk

By Kris Shannon

Autorickshaws could give Michael Schumacher a run for his money on the busy streets of Hyderabad, finds Kris Shannon.

Hyderabad's tuk-tuk drivers, or auto-wallahs, navigate the busy city streets with panache. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Hyderabad's tuk-tuk drivers, or auto-wallahs, navigate the busy city streets with panache. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Have a passion for dangerous driving but can no longer afford the fines? Enjoy being behind the wheel but wish your travels were accompanied by a cacophony of car horns?

Then consider a move abroad for a change in vocation. Hyderabad may already have plenty of tuk-tuk drivers, but there is (barely) room for one more.

With a population of 6.8 million and roads that make it feel as though it's twice that, Hyderabad is a haven for the driver who treats the task with vigour.

The congested streets - at almost any time of the day or night - suggest there should be traffic jams akin to Auckland at rush hour but, if there are, a passenger on a tuk-tuk rarely experiences them.

The autorickshaws, also referred to as autos, are a dime a dozen in most cities and villages in India. The favoured mode of transport for many locals in their day-to-day lives, the noisy three-wheeled vehicles provide cheap and efficient travel to all corners.

In Hyderabad it is harder to walk past a a tuk-tuk without being offered a ride than it is to find one when needed. Far cheaper than taxis, even for a tourist being fleeced on their first day, they are an ideal way to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the city.

As long as you keep your hands and feet inside the vehicles at all times.

That advice is imperative because the average driver, or "auto-wallah", is adept at squeezing through the slightest of gaps. If the passenger in the backseat of the cabin can pry apart their fingers long enough, they can peer through the empty space where the doors would be to witness a series of deft manoeuvres as the driver somehow weaves between motorcycles, cars and cows.

To the inexperienced eye, it's as if your tuk-tuk driver treats road rules as a minor inconvenience, and every other motorist is attempting to advise the error of his ways with their horn.

But it soon becomes clear your driver is not the only one who needs to brush up on the road code. The seemingly lawless roads in Hyderabad are almost a free-for-all and it is cause of endless wonderment that accidents are conspicuous by their absence.

Countless rupees in traffic signs and road paint must be saved, with the only semblance of order shown at intersections marshalled by traffic police (perhaps the most thankless job in the city).

The intersections without traffic police, on the other hand, can be life-changing to traverse. There appears no method to the madness as vehicles from all directions negotiate a number of hazards to proceed in the desired direction.

Forget about indicators preventing the possible carnage. Who needs them when a wave of the hand will suffice? A tuk-tuk driver's brakes double with the horn for the most overused device in the vehicle and a combination of the two, complemented by some creative steering, ensures safe passage through even the most crowded of Hyderabad crossroads.

The voyage can occasionally feel more a theme park ride than a taxi ride but, like a theme park, the chaos is a controlled variety, and any potential danger is belied by the number of collisions.

Sure, the lack of wing mirrors on cars is evidence of a few close shaves, but a similar lack of helmets among motorcyclists and seatbelts in tuk-tuks is no cause for consternation.

The cavalier attitude of the locals, in particular, reinforces the notion the roads are a lot safer than at first glance. A man would be less inclined to take his whole family in the back of an auto - the record was five - if he were worried about a crash.

That absence of anxiety owes much to the skill of those in control of the bright yellow bugs. The Indian Grand Prix is being raced next month in far sleeker surroundings, but some tuk-tuk drivers could probably give Michael Schumacher a run for his money on the streets of Hyderabad.

The affable drivers can even act as tour guides at times, taking a break from honking the horn to point out some of the landmarks whizzing past. They also hold an impressive knowledge of the city and an ability to navigate a labyrinth of roads, alleyways and tracks - though the success of that navigation is occasionally reliant on the accuracy of the directions of a few helpful locals.

And don't worry if your tuk-tuk driver does err and overshoots the requested destination. That is easily fixed by a quick U-turn before back-tracking into some obliging oncoming traffic.

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