Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Driving Miss Daisy or Driving us Crazy?
I’ve heard many an expat complain about the local drivers and or driving conditions in whichever country they might be living in and I’m sure expats, from those very countries being bellyached about, who live in New Zealand, have as many gripes about our alleged atrocious driving/drivers (I blame the roads and conditions rather than the skill of Kiwi drivers in New Zealand naturally). The drivers in Asian countries get a particularly bad rap and for good reason it seems. Even in Singapore, where any gear past second is almost superfluous, there are more fatalities than most major western countries. Ten years ago the Red Cross reported that an estimated 880 000 to one million people worldwide die in traffic accidents and a further 23 to 34 million are injured, the majority, a staggering 85%, in developing or ‘transitioning’ countries. These rates are increasing year on year whereas rates in developed countries are declining. Half of the total fatalities occurred in the Asia Pacific region with Malaysia taking line honours followed by Thailand in per capita statistics. Scary, scary, scary.
I never drove in Singapore. We decided that buying a car for three times what we could in NZ was just not worth it considering the public transport system is so good. This did mean that we were at the mercy of the skills of taxi and more often bus drivers many of whom drove as fast as possible at (yes I did mean ‘at’ and not ‘to’) every bus stop, intersection, traffic light and vehicle ahead or in the next lane, hitting the brakes at the very last minute and taking off again at the earliest opportunity ready or not! Balancing skills, arm strength and the ability to keep rude words in ones head were tested on a daily basis often more than once or twice. The driving by those in cars didn’t, however, seem to me to be any worse than what we experienced in Samoa. It seemed to me that Singaporean drivers indicated at least half of the time, came to a complete stand still at red lights, stayed on their own side of the road and usually in a particular lane and generally behaved like they had at least read a road code. Samoan drivers on the other hand drove as if they had just bought their license from a stall in the market (which some of them actually did). To add to that I am sure many of them were in need of a pair of thick glasses. This was especially evident at night when a barely held together, by chicken wire, rattle bucket pulls out in front of you, going up Cross Island road with inches to spare and grunts painfully up the hill. The driver is just visible, peering over the steering wheel, nose as close to the fractured (never park under a coconut tree) windscreen as possible trying in vain to make sure the white line that marks the middle of the road remains in the middle of his windscreen by the light of his almost lit headlight (no I didn’t mean headlights plural). Of course this particular road, which as its name suggests bisects the island and which we lived about two thirds of the way up on, is beset by blind corners and narrows the further up you go. This, however, is no problem for the average Samoan driver as ‘passing lane’ is of course the other definition of ‘blind corner’ even if your car can only manage 10 km/hr in second. It was common to find yourself faced with a huge Bedford bus, either straddling the white line or almost completely on your side of the road, coming merrily towards you. Woe betide the person who believed the driver would adjust his trajectory!! A complete stop on the grass verge (if indeed one was available) was usually required along with some choice words (no not so he could hear although it was tempting!!) to regain ones sanity before the resumption of the journey. Traffic lights only existed in Apia, the capital, and weren’t really traffic lights as much as starters pistols (that’s if drivers were going to stop at all). There was many a time going straight through a 4 way intersection where I hit the brakes and came to a standstill on the bonnet (ok not quite on but pretty close) of a car crossing in front of me. I am still surprised that neither of us had an accident in the two and a half years we drove Samoa. The coconut tree J backed into one night after organising a hugely successful Melbourne Cup event doesn’t count he informs me as the car had been moved during the course of the night. In other words the tree wasn’t there when he parked and anyway it was but a minor ditt not even a coconut was dislodged in the process.
So I am again trying to imagine myself behind the wheel in no sense (yep that is ‘no sense’ as opposed to nonsense) traffic because although we do have a driver here there will be times when it seems a bit ridiculous to get him to our house to drive someone to the shop for milk or bread or to drive M to a friends place in town for a couple of hours during an evening in the weekend. We will see how brave I feel after the six months the company makes us wait for before we can entertain a blat on Phnom Penh’s dusty moto and unmarked blacked out windowed Lexus clogged roads.