Travel by car in India isn't for the faint of heart, but if you can get over India's extremely different road philosophy, it can be an enjoyable, never boring way to see the country and get from one city to the next.
Roads in India may be wide and smooth in big cities, but they're usually narrow and terribly maintained in the countryside. Traffic in major cities is so erratic and abundant that it is hard to pin down local rush hours. Roads are filled with countless cars at all times of the day and even late at night, especially around the airports (international flights tend to arrive in the wee morning hours). Always be ready for some kind of traffic jam or other road drama if traveling by car.
Traffic is multifarious: you'll see slow-moving cyclists, bullock carts, cows, herds of goats, and even camels or elephants sharing the road with speeding, honking, quick-to-pass, ready-to-brake-for-animals vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Barring a few principal routes and highways built under the continuing modernization project, Indian roads are often dilapidated and become worse during monsoon season. Speed limits, set according to road conditions, are frequently ignored. Road signs, when they exist, are often just in Hindi or the local language.
Because of Britain’s historic influence in India, traffic circles are common in newer sections of cities. Older parts of cities are generally made up of extremely narrow, winding streets. Old Delhi's streets tend to be one-way, although you won't be able to tell which way that is unless you simply look at the traffic. Locals drive fast when they can and show little regard for pedestrians.
In rural areas two-way roads are often only one-lane wide, so vehicles frequently dodge oncoming traffic for hours on end. Some roads also serve as innovative extensions to farms, with grain laid out to dry on the pavement or sisal rope strung over the route so that vehicles tramp the grain or rope down. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road.
Rules of the Road
Hard copies of road regulations are difficult to come by in India, and many Indians either ignore or genuinely aren't aware of road rules across the subcontinent. Take, for instance, speed limits. They aren't always posted, and different states have different speed limits on their respective stretches of the national highways. Any speed less than 100 km (about 60 miles) per hour is probably legal. Locals drive faster than that if not stifled by gridlock, and punishment for speeding is spotty at best. On the off chance that you're driving and you get stopped for speeding, you might have to pay a fine (which is often really just a bribe) depending on the officer's mood.
There are also laws requiring the use of seat belts and laws against using your cell phone while driving. However, you'll be hard-pressed to find any local who wears a belt religiously or gets punished if he doesn't. People do seem to be more aware of restrictions on cell-phone use, and talkers in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, especially foreigners, do get singled out by the cops—it's best not to use your cell phone behind the wheel. The most serious offense—drunk driving—is taken very seriously (when enforced) and is punishable by jail time.
The website www.indiandrivingschools.com has a fairly comprehensive outline of basic Indian traffic regulations. Nevertheless, it's not too much of a stretch to call Indian roads a free-for-all where traffic rules are theoretical at best.
Hiring a Car and Driver
Don't rent a self-drive car. The rules and road conditions are probably like nothing you've ever experienced, so taking taxis or hiring a car and driver are the best choices. The good news: hiring a car and driver is affordable by Western standards, and even Indians use this option for weekend getaways. However, the price can add up for long trips, so be sure to establish terms, rates, and surcharges in advance. Drivers are usually paid by the company they work for, and every company has unique policies. It's not uncommon for you to pay for the whole trip in advance, or to pay for half at the front end while settling the balance at the end of the trip. Rates generally include gasoline.
Shorter trips are usually priced by kilometer. Figure around Rs. 15 per km for a non-air-conditioned Ambassador—a hefty, roomy car designed by the British in the 1950s. Ambassadors, which sometimes come with air-conditioning, are not as universal as they used to be, and now the most economic rates often get you a Tata Indica, a small but also practical choice. Indicas are not quite as comfortable as the Ambassador, as these are lighter cars that get bounced about on pot-holed roads. In some locations a higher rate gets you a diesel Sumo jeep or an air-conditioned Cielo or Contessa; still more cash gets you a Toyota, a minivan, or, at some agencies, even a Mercedes-Benz or a BMW.
On longer trips one price usually covers a certain number of hours and kilometers; beyond that you pay extra. Expect to pay at least Rs. 1,000–Rs. 1,500 a day to have a driver at your disposal—more if you're using an expensive hotel car. Add to this a "night halt charge" of Rs. 200 to Rs. 300 per night for overnight trips. Some companies also charge a driver's fee for an eight-hour day.
Arrange a car and driver only through a reputable travel agency or licensed, government-approved operator or, for quite a bit more money, through your hotel. Be sure to discuss your itinerary up front—what seems like a reasonable day's drive on a map can often take much longer in reality. Roads in some areas—wildlife sanctuaries, for example—require a jeep; better to iron out all the details than to miss sights because you don't have the right sort of vehicle. On long journeys, decide in advance where and when you'll stop for tea or meal breaks. The daredevil road maneuvers that are the norm in India can be unsettling. Ask the driver to travel slowly, or have the operator inform the driver of your request.