Rules of the Road and the Culture of Driving

OK I admit it, I’m a bit of a driving snob. This is largely due to having spent the first four decades of my life in the UK, with one of the most difficult driving tests, strictly enforced rules and, consequently, very low road death and accident rate. Then we moved to California and I had to take my California Driver’s “test” which involved driving about 2 miles, making a few stops and turns before I was handed a license. I thought it was a joke until we moved to Pennsylvania where the same test consists of reverse parking a vehicle into a space large enough for an airplane to park and then driving through a parking lot and approximately 100 yds of road.

I still find it astonishing that that a 16-year old can take this “test” of their driving competency and then hop into a Hummer and drive it across country. And not only drive it, but do so in such an aggressive manner. It’s as if every US driver thinks the road is theirs and theirs alone, with little concept of braking distance and the dangers of tailgating.

So, that being said, I have been amazed this week by the driving in and around Chennai, India. The roads are chock full of mopeds, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks), cars, buses, trucks and of course people and the odd cow wandering through. It is fascinating to watch how this all works. And work it does. Many vehicles have a “sound horn” sign on the rear and it is quite expected to drive along and, when obstructed, simply press the horn to warn the other rider/driver/pedestrian that you are there. Amazingly, the other road users all heed the warning and move over, which is useful as road markings seem to serve little purpose here leading to 3 or 4 vehicles occupying 2 lanes.

I am unsure how it works, but it is truly a demonstration of collective teamwork on a huge scale. Unlike in the US or Europe the car horn here does not seem to be used aggressively and other road users seem to just “get on with it.” As I sit in my car I am somewhat awestruck by how my driver navigates his route (no, there’s no way I am going to drive myself here!) with relative ease. Yesterday we came face to face with several trucks in the middle of the road (and more cows) as we heading from one town to another and yet it all seemed to work smoothly.


I cannot imagine this sort of holistic driving approach working elsewhere and conversely, I wonder how Indian drivers find the driving in the US or Europe?


Ethical tipping?

Giving small gratuities or tips to people for providing a service is part of many cultures whilst being considered offensive in others (e.g., Japan).In some cultures a tip is expected for certain activities, and indeed is factored into the expected income even by the tax authority (e.g., waitresses in the US), whereas in others a tip should be given only for exceptional service above and beyond the expected level.

I used to travel a lot on business from the UK, which does not have a particularly strong tipping culture outside of certain roles, but having lived and worked in the US for several years I now always made a point of tipping cab drivers, bell hops, maid service and waitresses. However, on my recent trip to India I was faced with another dilemma – how much to give as a tip when there is such a discrepancy between local and tourist wealth?

I don’t want to be mean, but on the other hand I don’t want to offend by appearing brash and giving the impression I think that the local currency is of low value. To be honest it’s all rather confusing

For example, I asked at the hotel reception how much would be a good tip for a taxi driver, as was told that it is 65 rupees to the dollar so about 60-100 rupees would be a good tip. So, when the driver dropped me off in town in the early morning I handed him a 100 rupee note and he then said he would wait for me to return, even though I wasn’t coming back to be collected for nearly 4 hours! I don’t know if this was what he planned anyway or whether it was because of the tip, and I admit I had mixed feelings about having him wait that length of time just for me.


A check on the web revealed that an IT business Analyst earns somewhere between $3,500-$14,000 per year, an IT Project Manager $9,500-$25,000 and a Customer Service Manager $12,000-$18,000; while a waiter may earn $1,500-$2,500.

So, to my dilemma: there seems to be no issue with the hotel in which I am staying charging Western-style prices to foreign guests for room and restaurant ($180/night and about $40 for dinner + taxes) yet clearly the staff is not paid western-style salaries.

If someone is earning under $10 per day is it appropriate for me to tip them 20-30% of their daily salary for cleaning my room? I really don’t know. So, I went with my conscience and left 100 rupees ($1.50) the first day and it was accepted. However, on the second day it was left untouched. I don’t know why. I left 50 rupees for the next few days and it was accepted, even though it seems mean to me…

I remain confused and if anyone has any suggestions or comments I would welcome them.


PS: since writing this post I brought up the issue of tipping with some Indian colleagues and they told me that tipping is not generally expected in India, thus adding to my confusion as i had read that is was expected… sometimes… !

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