Anatomy of a Motorbike Accident in BaliJune 3, 2010
Witnessing a motorbike accident is shocking in its suddenness. Before your mind can register what has happened, there is a flash and tangle of limbs, spinning wheels and brightly coloured bike parts in front of you. The sound is unexpected too – the faintest of thumps followed by an obscene scraping of plastic along the unforgiving road surface. If it is just ahead of you, you barely have time to avoid running over the hapless rider, now sliding over the meat-shredder road surface. From the time that things first go wrong to the moment where flesh, steel and plastic come to rest takes perhaps two seconds. It’s not pretty, but it’s fast.
Despite seeing literally hundreds of near-misses, I have only witnessed three crashes here in the last year. All were horrifyingly sudden and all left me a bit shocked. Maybe this is a good thing – when you ride in Bali, complacency is your mortal enemy. The sight and sound of an accident resets one’s risk-evaluation meter to a state of hyper-caution. One rides more defensively, because there is nothing like the sight blood to dismiss the inner Valentino Rossi and bring out the inner wimp.
The slightest lapse of concentration can bring about disaster. Some time ago, I watched a tourist (who told me afterwards that he had no licence or riding experience) riding through the bends in Jl. Padma Utara, his local girlfriend close behind on her own bike. He looked to one side and pointed something out to his companion, who naturally looked in that direction. At that moment, he inexplicably braked – and distracted, she clipped his back wheel and crashed.
Her injuries were relatively minor, but disfiguring. The flesh on her knee was torn back to the bone; the skin of her ankle bone had peeled away like a hard-boiled eggshell, and the numerous rips and tears on her arms were filled with bits of gravel and tar. I helped as best I could, but she didn’t want to see a doctor, being more concerned with screaming at her boyfriend for stopping. Or maybe she had experienced surgical debridement before, and wasn’t about to go back for a second dose. In her eyes, her choice to tailgate wasn’t a factor in the accident. It took two seconds from contact to lying on the road, nursing wounds that would scar her for life.
The other accidents I saw were similar – a momentary distraction causing loss of control, leading to a upset of the finely-tuned dynamic equilibrium between all riders in the vicinity. One was actually caused by a third party – a young mother who wheeled her toddler’s pram off the footpath and on to the road without looking – a frequent occurrence in Bali. Perhaps she believed that her pram was a vehicle, and so entitled to use roads instead of footpaths. The motorbike coming up behind her had nowhere to go, and swerved into the path of another bike that was overtaking at that moment. Both bikes crashed, blood was spilled and oaths were exchanged in that peculiarly Balinese passive-aggressive manner. The young mother, oblivious to the carnage behind her, continued to use the road while motorists zoomed around her. The episode took two seconds.
The picture changes drastically when it happens to you. My narrowest escape was on a day when traffic was light, so I was enjoying the freedom of leaning the bike over through the bends. A nice sharp right-hander was coming up, and with the bike well over, I was about to power through a dark shadow left by the late afternoon sun. But wait! The sun was over there, so that’s not a shadow, it’s water streaming over the apex of the turn! Time slows when you’re not having fun, so there seemed to be plenty of time to get the bike upright before the wet patch and gently apply the brakes.
Of course, that meant I was no longer turning. But the road was, so after an eternity of locking and releasing the brakes while heading straight for a shop, the bike finally began to slow. Subjectively, it took a long time to traverse the frictionless wet section, plough through the roadside gravel, avoid a rubbish bin on the forecourt and come to a dramatic stop in a shower of gravel. My front wheel was just inside the shop door. I looked at the shop owner. He looked at me placidly. “Just looking”, I said. “OK”, he replied. The whole episode took two seconds. To me, being in the thick of it, it felt like twenty seconds. Jam karet.
His laid-back response is typical of the local attitude towards motorcycle dramas here. One morning, I asked a local friend if he knew of a good driver for a month’s work. He called me back early in the afternoon and said his friend could do it, but he hadn’t been answering his calls all day. Later that day, he rang and said: “Sorry, my friend cannot do the job.” “Oh”, I said. “Yes, he was killed this afternoon – motorbike crash”. “Oh no!” I said, in shock. “It’s alright, don’t worry”, he reassured me, “I can get someone else for you.” He found it strange that I was concerned about the death, and thought that I was peeved that I had no driver. How sad, how fatalistic.
But it does explain a lot about the attitude of locals to danger. You live, you ride, you die, you join your ancestors. That’s just the way it is here. Me, I’m just going to be extra careful.