Why the Police Will Never Get “Safety Riding” to Work

April 11, 2010

Tactical solutions to strategic problems never work. It is useless to treat symptoms without addressing the cause, and legislators who think that increasing punitive traffic regulations will solve Bali’s traffic ills are showing a disappointing lack of understanding of traffic management and safety issues. In their recent knee-jerk traffic law-making fit, they are not just showing ignorance of driver and rider behaviour, but betraying the trust of the people who elected them. Bad driving examples are just symptoms of a greater malaise, which in Bali, is a set of deep-seated anarchic attitudes to driving which are at the core of the traffic chaos here.

April 1 (how apt!) saw the introduction of greatly increased penalties for a whole range of misdemeanors. Not a single one of these will do anything to prevent accidents, or change the basic nature of riders (and many car drivers) who regard traffic rules in the same way as they regard grit blowing into their faces while riding. An irritation perhaps, but of no real relevance to the way they drive.

Why won’t the regulations work? Well, for a start, the new rules are not being promoted effectively – at least, not to the locals. I ride with my headlight on during the day – a logical, safe strategy which gives me higher visibility and perhaps even a reduced risk of being hit by a texting, arak-addled kamikaze rider with the anticipatory skills of an ashtray. And because for the last month, it has been the law for all riders here. Yet every day, I am waved at by helpful riders telling me that I have “left my lights on”. All conversations about this end up with the same set of reasons why they would never ride with their lights on, regardless of the law:

“It wastes electricity” (What?!)
“Light will burn out quicker. Globes too expensive!”
“But it is daytime!” (Unsaid: “You idiot!”)
And the one that gives the biggest clue to the way locals think: “Oh no, rule only for bules …”

The thing is, despite us bules being only a very small percentage of riders on Bali roads, we fall foul of road rules here much more often than locals. We are your classic soft (and rich) target. And not only is there a selective implementation of road rules based on this offensive racial profiling, but we pay much higher fines than locals when we do get busted. The police know full well that the new fines structure is out of the question for locals to pay, so the new regimen will inevitably focus attention on us – the smallest group of road users with the greatest capacity to pay. So pray tell, how will that improve compliance, or road safety, or roadcraft for the vast majority of local road warriors? The short answer is, it won’t.

When we talk of the mad behaviour of Bali traffic overall, we are not actually referring to something tangible. Traffic patterns, like any chaotic system (in the mathematical sense) are examples of emergent behaviour. The crazy complexity that we see is the resultant of a relatively small number of simple behavioural imperatives displayed by the majority of motorists. Like the schooling behaviour of fish swimming in flawless formation – the whole school seemingly behaving like a unified entity – Bali traffic appears dangerous, disorganised and sometimes downright suicidal in its overall aspect. But like fish, who are governed by simple, instinctual rules such as: ‘keep 5 cm from the fish on your right’, and ‘if there are no fish in front of me, avoid obstacles and predators’, Bali motorists have their own simple rules of engagement.

So what are these simple driving and riding imperatives in Bali? Here are the 7 main personal rules that, I believe, motivate most motorists here:

* Get to where you want to go in the fastest possible time
* Follow the shortest path to do so that is within the physical capabilty of your vehicle. (This may include footpaths, median strips, one-way streets and over the occaional pedestrian or kaki lima)
* Give way to no-one unless a collision is imminent
* Always use internal criteria, (such as one’s own deeply flawed judgement) instead of irrelevant external criteria such as traffic lights to ascertain if it is possible to cross intersections or enter streets
*  Assume everyone else will give way to you, or stop, including oncoming yellow trucks with a momentum 500 times that of your bike
* Never, ever give way to a bule. If you crash into them, it’s OK – they will pay for all expenses
* Never take responsibility for anything, because it’s never your fault.

So what is the emergent behaviour that you get when all these simple little rules interact? The Bali traffic phenomenon. And it will never change as long as regulators address what they see as the ‘big picture’ and ignore the elements that actually create the big picture. Of course, the only way to change those is to re-educate, so that you change the mindsets of motorists driven by their own personal agendas, not traffic regulations irrelevant to them.

That’s why the police will never be successful in ensuring road safety. Their tools – the road regulations – are simply the wrong ones for the job. Their targets are the wrong ones too. And many are motivated by profit, not safety anyway. In the meantime, while we wait for officialdom to get its act together, hati hati!



  1. When I first experienced Indo traffic the Indonesian father of my friend used to say “Orang Indonesia kurang disiplin…” and tsk tsk sadly…

    A more glass-half-full type I met used to say “people say Indonesia is not democratic, wrong, we are a democracy, you are free to drive where-ever you want including the pavement”.

    • Yes. The many guises of freedom …

  2. And perhaps an eight rule.. if it is after sundown any rules that are loosely followed (such as the wearing of helmets, or the operation of a vehicle by a licensed driver) no longer apply. If you question a local about that they will inform you that the police don’t work at night (and so the rules don’t apply).

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