PUNE, India -- Just before I came to India last winter, a friend told me she had a premonition she would never see me again. She was genuinely concerned and so was I. "If I die in India," I told her, "it will be in a traffic accident."
Crime rates in Indian cities are similar to those in Canada, but you are three times more likely to die on the roads here. In Pune, a mid-sized city by Indian standards, 363 people died in traffic last year. In Toronto, with a population of a million more, there were 58 traffic deaths.
Other possible hazards such as rabies, malaria and dengue fever are manageable, unless you are poor. Even in the dry season, it's wise to apply mosquito repellent for outdoor events, especially in the evening, but I'm not inclined to go out at night in any case, because the roads are even more perilous after dark than they are in the daytime.
While the causes of accidents here are multiple, most are related to rapid growth. An estimated 600 new vehicles join the fray in Pune each day. Most of them are motorcycles and scooters.
"Unguided missiles" my husband calls them as they weave between buses, cars, trucks and three-wheeled rickshaws, missing pedestrians by centimetres. Two-wheelers make up 70 per cent of the vehicles on the road in Pune.
At first I used to close my eyes on every outing in the car -- there were too many near misses. Now I try to keep my eyes open. I realize there are certain unwritten rules that work, most of the time. For example, you should honk if you intend to pass. Honking is as much a courtesy as a sign of impatience. With so many vehicles going varying speeds, honking may seem a random act, but it isn't. If someone near you honks, it's best to pay attention.
Another rule is to stick close to the vehicle in front. If you don't, one vehicle after another will cut in. This tactic is especially useful at uncontrolled intersections and on right turns (which are perilous when you drive on the left). By sticking close together, a mass of vehicles can form a wedge, creep forward gradually and take possession of the road. Fearless motorcyclists are very good at leading the wedge. I don't know what the more cautious car-owners would do without them.
I've come to admire these daring young men and women on their two-wheelers (sometimes whole families with a toddler standing at the front and a baby wedged in between mom and dad). They have no choice -- they have to get from one place to another, and with poor public transportation, they are doing the best they can.
If only they would wear helmets the death toll would go down. A road-safety advocacy group estimates more than 50 per cent of Pune's traffic deaths occur because motorcycle riders are not wearing helmets.
It is mandatory across the country to wear a helmet, but in Pune that law is rarely enforced. My guess is fewer than 10 per cent of drivers wear helmets.
Driving on highways or in the cities is particularly hazardous after dark. Street-lighting is often poor. Sharp curves, potholes and road construction sites usually appear with no warning.
Last year, on my very last night in India, we were invited to a party at a country house 40 kilometres from Pune. I was not happy to go, but the man who invited us was in poor health, and we knew the party might be his last bash (and possibly mine, too, I thought, as we started out in the dark.)
The road there was in the process of being built -- like many things in India -- but by some miracle everyone made it to the party and back without a mishap. Of course, none of us had come on two-wheelers. Even when it comes to traffic deaths, relative wealth offers some protection.
For several years, a rapid transit system with designated bus lanes has been in the works, and now there is talk of a Pune metro. Eventually, these improvements in public transport should stem the flow of traffic and traffic accidents.
In the meantime, I shall continue to cross the road very carefully.
Faith Johnston spends winters in Pune India with her India-born husband.