Thursday, August 21, 2008

Horn, please

In India we found a remarkable form of gentility, commonly seen on street signs and even vehicles everywhere, that is rarely seen in the United States.

We’re not talking about bumper stickers or the huge billboards that Chennai is known for.

Sumit Ganguly, director of the Indiana University India Studies Institute, professor of political science and holder of the Rabindranath Tagore Professorship in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at IU Bloomington, once told me that this was something left over from British control.

It allows Indians to make strong suggestions without being confrontational.

For example, on the back of nearly every large truck, you’ll find it written: “Horn, Please; Use Dipper at Night.” This encourages a frequent honking by everyone on the road as a form of communication. While we learn how to properly use lane position – stay on the right except to pass – in India driving is done through constant merging of traffic and the changing of positions.

The use of the horn, particularly by large trucks and buses lets everyone else on a motorcycle, bicycle, rickshaw or even a car who’s coming through – and it’s usually another bus or truck.

Yet, only once in three years have I seen the middle-fingered salute. Notice the use of the word, “please,” on the trucks.

As Kelley School instructor Jeanette Heidewald observed last year, “The road flows like fireflies swirling ever forward, never touching but always seeming ready to end up in one big pile.”

This year, when we were on a tour of a factory, the sign on the back window of a car in front of us offered direct, simple instructions: “Follow Me.”

Then there are the street signs and many of them seem to take something of a personal interest in others. The closest thing you’ll see to them in the United States are the signs in construction zones, which tell you that fines are multiplied for speeding there, or the reminder that “Daddy” works there.

You’ll never see the sign Rosanna Bateman photographed: “Man at work.” I think the Department of Transportation might take offense.

In India, they address social issues as well as traffic laws. A favorite one from last year came courtesy the Faridabad Traffic Police. Its straight-forward message to cyclists was, “Hell or Helmet: The Choice is Yours.”

Another sign now seen twice in Faridabad – on the road to Agra from Delhi – has a poignant message for people passing through this place when it isn’t monsoon season: “Water is precious; Use it With Care; Do Not Waste a Drop of It.”

I also liked this simple plea to help the environment: “Save lives; Plant trees.”

In the U.S. people are rightly concerned about drivers’ usage of cell phones. On a stairwell at Infosys there’s this sign: “Please avoid cell phone usage on stairs.”

Undergraduate director Kathleen Robbins discovered this unique appeal to smokers: “Save your breath for more shopping.”

It's economic stimulus meets public health policy.

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