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Laws are for Wimps

23 Jul 11
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It was the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche who wrote “Out of chaos comes order.” Clearly he never spent any time traveling through Bandung traffic.

The first thing to know about driving here is that there really aren’t too many rules. It’s rather simple, really. You drive, wedging yourself between other cars and trucks, while attempting to avoid the motorcycles. Chaos ensues. And that’s pretty much it.

Oh, like any country there are traffic laws. At least they tell me there are. It’s just that no one seems to be concerned with following them. On one of my first days driving here I stopped at a red light near our house, only to be on the receiving end of a massive chorus of horns as other cars rolled around me and straight through the red light. It’s against the law I’ve been told to drive on the shoulder of major highways, but that doesn’t stop cars and trucks from passing each other on the shoulder while traveling more than 140km (87 miles) an hour. No one pays attention to speed limits, regularly traveling on major roadways marked 80km an hour at twice that speed. And driving just one meter (three feet) off another vehicle’s bumper in highway traffic would seem a sure recipe for disaster, yet everyone does it with few crushed fenders to show for it.

In fact, that bumper thing seems to be part of the unofficial road rules here. When a driver comes up behind another car traveling more slowly in the passing lane of a divided highway, they don’t flip their high beams on them, or honk their horns as you might in America. Instead, no matter how fast they are driving they stop one meter (3 feet) off the other car’s bumper and put on their turn signal. This means the other car should move over so the first car can pass. Sometimes this actually works.

When you want to keep another car from cutting in front of you, meanwhile, you drive a meter off the car’s bumper. Tired? Well then, drive just one meter away from the next car’s bumper.

In other words, all traffic laws and normal safety concerns common to America are merely suggestions here.

In many countries highway police make sure traffic laws are obeyed. Here in Bandung I rarely see police on the roads, and I have never seen a car pulled over by a policeman in order to enforce a traffic violation. They do pull cars over – we were stopped this past week by a policeman on a motorcycle. Rather than telling us we had done something wrong, he demanded our identity papers. I gave him a copy of our KITAS, which is our permission to stay in the country long-term. The original KITAS is stapled in your passport, and I rarely travel around town with my passport so I had copies of the KITAS made and laminated. But this was not good enough for the officer, who insisted that we produce our passports as well. Oddly, we were heading to immigration and I had the passports with me, which satisfied the policeman and he drove away. The real reason for the stop was never clear, but our driver thought the policeman was looking for a bribe. This was the first time since we have been here that we were pulled out of traffic, and I’ve almost never seen anyone else pulled over.

But while traffic stops are rare, police barricades are very common. I see at least one almost every other day. Police set up on the side of a road, often at a point where people cannot turn around to avoid them. They look for motorcyclists without helmets (a law they do try to enforce) and car occupants not wearing seat belts (front seat only – many cars here don’t even have seat belts in the back seat). But anything else seems to go unnoticed. Broken down cars and vans are allowed to pass, children so small it seems impossible that they could get on the motorcycle and drive it without help are not stopped unless they forgot their helmet – violations of any kind that would get a car stopped in America are simply ignored.

Bules (the word here for white people) are often stopped at these barricades and their drivers license and insurance papers are checked. I have been told this is an opportunity for a shake-down – police hoping to augment their meager salaries with bribes. However, while we have been stopped many times at these barricades, I have never once been asked for money. And now the police at the barricade near our home recognize us, and simply wave us past with a smile.

Many Southeast Asians have a different concept of personal space, which clearly affects the way they drive. This must come, in part, from how crowded much of the region is. Bandung, where we live, sits on the island of Java. Java is some 1050km (650 miles) long, and at one point gets as wide as 210km (130 miles). It contains around 130,000km2 (50,000 square miles) of land, and a population of at least 130 million people. All this means the island has a population density of around 1,000 people per square kilometer – or 2,600 people per square mile.

A little perspective here – on average, that would mean about 5 people living on every piece of land the size of an American football field (without the end zones). That’s not too crowded.

But people don’t live by averages. Rather than spread out on those football field-sized pieces of land, most people live scrunched together in cities.

It’s hard to get a real estimate of the land size of Bandung, which is Indonesia’s third largest city. In part that’s because official land surveys seem to be rarely taken. Estimates found on-line range from 170 square kilometers in 1987 to 168 in 2007. So let’s assume it’s grown to at least 200 square kilometers now (not a bad assumption considering how quickly land is gobbled up around here for additional homes). With an official population of three million, that means there are at least 15,000 people living on each square kilometer of land. Or, to continue with our football field comparison, about 70 people living between the goal lines.

Take away land for roads and bridges, hospitals and clinics, trash heaps and any other non-human land use and you can begin to see just how crowded it is here. Especially since the 3 million official estimate is certainly way low.

Now translate that closeness into driving methods, and you can perhaps understand why they drive the way they do. In their daily lives they share some of their most personal behaviors with strangers out of necessity – there is no room for privacy. We have seen people casually urinating on a busy street while talking to a friend, and standing in their underwear to take a shower in the rain. So why would they think it a violation of personal space to drive so closely to each other?

The odd thing about all this is that despite the closeness, accidents rarely seem to happen. And because the traffic generally moves so slowly, when accidents do occur there is mostly little damage. I was driving on a busy street near home a week or two ago when an Angkut driver – an Angkut is one of those little mini-vans that carry people around for a dollar or two a ride – pulled out of the lane next to me and hit my side door. I stared at him and he looked back, shrugged, then drove on. The next day I told our driver. He laughed, got some rubbing compound and removed the green paint on the passenger door. The car was fine.

So maybe Nietzsche was right after all – out of chaos does indeed come some form of order. It’s just that the crowds here make it tough to see.

1 Comment

  1. Glenda Sutardy August 30, 2011 at 10:49 pm Reply

    Well hi Guys
    Nothing much has changed I can assure you. It is Ramadan here tonight. There are two different sects claiming different days this year so we are getting a double dose of extreme noise over not one, b
    ut two nights. Fireworks, kids trying out their lungs at the mosques and people generally having a good time on the streets in all the noise. I expect the din to go all night.
    Anyway I lost your email. Please say hi to the kids – they are missed!

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