Archive for the ‘BALI TRAFFIC’ Category

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Why Your Choice Not To Wear A Helmet Is My Business

July 28, 2014

“I never wear a helmet”, brags the expat on one of the more combative Bali forums. Let’s call him Bazza. “Nobody can tell me what to do. It’s my bloody choice if I wear one or not.” Some Indonesian participants agree. “We only wear helmets on long trips. No need around town in
Bali.” Others, perhaps of a more practical bent, chime in with warnings about the huge cost of medical treatment, the fact that insurance won’t pay, the police stings, the enormous risk to him, and … well, you’ve heard all those reasons before.

But Bazza is intractable. “If I get hurt, that’s my business. I’ll pay for my own hospital treatment.” He admits that he has no medical insurance. And he forcefully says that, no, he doesn’t expect anyone to hold fund-raisers for him, or help out if he is incapacitated, or to donate towards medical evacuation costs – or anything, really.

“I take responsibility for myself”, he keeps repeating. “I hate helmets – they’re restrictive and uncomfortable.” Like road safety rules, I suppose. He goes on to say, “I like the wind in my hair. It’s no-one’s business what I do, and all you do-gooders can just shut up.” He finishes with, “Don’t tell me how to live my life. If I don’t wear a helmet, it doesn’t affect you one bit, except to give you something to whinge about in your shallow, boring lives.”

I can understand his ire, if not his lack of diplomacy. I’m not much one for do-gooder rules myself. But as I ponder on his attitude, I am struck by the realisation that his ‘right’ to ride in helmet-less freedom, and his belief that it does not affect me “one bit”, is just plain wrong. It actually affects me a lot.

But what if this freedom-loving, rule-breaking, self-centred, independent legend was to have a serious spill one day? What if his unprotected head was to smash into the road as he comes off, peeling back his scalp, fracturing his skull and coating the surface of his exposed brain with the dirt and bacteria of Bali’s roads? And don’t say it’s unlikely; this happens every single day here in Bali.

And what if, at the same time, I am riding too, and I have an accident where my helmeted head suffers a ferocious blow which leaves me semi-conscious with a severe concussion?

In both cases, passers-by would no doubt call for an ambulance to take each of us to hospital. But this is Bali – there are few ambulances, many accidents and emergencies, and permanently choked roads that slow thinly-stretched emergency-response vehicles to a crawl.

So the dispatchers, having heard the sitrep from both accidents, will inevitably triage the two of us, and give priority to – guess who? – Bazza. After all, he is the one who is unconscious, covered with copious amounts of blood from his scalp lacerations, and the one whose brains
are leaking out of his cranium. High priority.

By comparison, I am merely groggy and disoriented and with only superficial grazes. As from inside a deep well I hear “Yes sir, he was wearing a helmet, and yes, he is sort of conscious”, as someone phones for an ambulance, so of course, I end up as a low priority job. They will
send their first available ambulance for Bazza. He’s the one in most need, at least in their professional judgement.

So I get to wait for the next available patient transport, while, unknown to me or anyone else, the brain bleed in my skull that began when I crashed goes unrecognised and untreated. I will die within two hours unless I get immediate medical intervention to relieve my intra-cranial bleed.

But let’s say I do manage to get to the hospital before I actually expire on the road. I will most likely languish in the emergency room, gradually losing consciousness, while the only qualified head trauma surgeon on duty is busy trying to stabilise Bazza.

By this stage, I have about twenty minutes left to live. By the time the surgeon slaps on enough dacron patches to glue Bazza’s stupid head together, checks his vitals and hands over to his assistant to do the closure, stitching and bandaging, it is nearly too late for me and my undiagnosed subdural haematoma.

That’s because my skull totally encloses my brain, which is getting gradually compressed by leaking blood. Oxygen-rich blood can no longer flow to my brain tissue. The reduced oxygen causes my neurons to die and my brain to swell even further. All this combines to force my brain down through the foramen magnum – a small hole at the base of my skull. Those brain parts that come in contact with the hard bone around this opening get so compressed that they stop
working altogether.

The surgeon, finally freed of his responsibilities to the idiot Bazza (who no doubt still insists that his choice of not wearing a helmet affects no-one but him) finally arrives just in time to see me go into convulsions. Those areas of my brain which are being crushed actually control my breathing
and heart rate. I already have brain damage from anoxia, but that is nothing compared to what will happen next unless the surgeon immediately drills a hole in my skull to relieve the pressure. Quite simply, without help, I will die.

But somehow I survive. I don’t remember much. I have months of rehabilitation ahead. I can’t really understand all the words in books now, so I don’t read much. I don’t recognise people who claim they’re my friends. Sometimes I have lucid moments where some of my old mental acuity returns, and I think about things like cause and effect, actions and consequences. I vaguely remember using the internet a long time ago, and arguing with a guy called Bazza, who insisted on having the freedom to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, because no do-gooder
had the right to tell him what to do.

And I frown, vaguely remembering that I really disagreed with his attitude once, but for the life of me I don’t know why. The doctors keep giving me pills to make me better, they say, but I just flush them down the toilet. I think Bazza was probably right about people telling you what to do all the
time, so I will just ignore them, just like he did.

I see a guy on a gurney, head bandaged, connected to drips, being wheeled out of the hospital towards a Medevac ambulance. His friends look pale and stressed, and I hear them talking about how they had to take out mortgages to pay for his operations and to fly him home. One says, “You’ll be right, Bazza.” His name rings a bell, but I can’t remember why. I feel emotional seeing people look after their friends when something bad happens.

But most of the time I feel confused and angry and rebellious, and I want to go out riding fast, bare-chested and with the wind in my hair, enjoying my freedom, but they say I can’t. I don’t see why not. It’s my choice, not theirs.

But they say not to do it, because my brain is a bit like Bazza’s now and I’m unable to understand ‘consequences’, whatever they are. I don’t really know, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going to do it anyway, because I’m the boss of me, and those do-gooders can just shut up.

Besides, it won’t affect anyone but me.

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Why Do Parents Insist On Killing Their Kids In Bali?

July 19, 2013

I don’t really understand why some Balinese parents are so hell-bent on killing their kids here. Oh, they don’t do it deliberately – in many ways they care for their children in a way that far surpasses child-raising practices in westernised countries.

But they allow them to ride motorbikes from a very young age – an age when common sense has not yet begun to develop, when risk-awareness is non-existent and understanding of consequences is totally absent. And ‘road rules’? Well, I doubt that many of the parents who allow their kids on the road have any idea themselves.

So I’m on the road, on the way to brunch, and the road is full of kids on bikes. Many are in elementary school uniforms, all look to be between 7 and 10 years old. They are skittish and impulsive, weaving all over the road, impulsively accelerating and braking without a thought for any other road users. They are dangerous, and unaware of anyone but themselves. I ride defensively, because they show the same the attributes of caution as a cat caught in the middle of a busy road. At least a cat has the sense to be scared; these kids show no fear.

Suddenly, on a bend in the road, a child on a bike – way too big and heavy for him – comes straight at me on my side of the road. He looks to be about 6 years old. He is not wearing a helmet. It’s a blind corner, but he is taking a racing line, cutting the corner at speed, oblivious to the possibility of on-coming traffic. He sees me, but takes no evasive action. Maybe that’s because he has a phone firmly clutched in his left hand and has not yet mastered swerves using only one hand.

I brake hard – tricky on a bend – and manage to get far enough onto the left shoulder to avoid a head-on crash. He deviates not one centimetre from his line on the wrong side of the road. As he passes, he glares at me, his face twisted with anger. How dare I, as a bule, occupy a part of the road where he wants to be? How arrogant of me.

Worse, as he flashes past, his passenger – a little girl of perhaps 4 or 5, who is also helmet-less, just looks at me with that Balinese direct opaque stare, without a trace of fear, or a skerrick of understanding that she was seconds away from death or a horrible maiming.

In the next ten minutes, I see dozens of small children on motorbikes, riding three abreast, chatting to each other and ignoring oncoming cars that have to brake and swerve. I see others cutting corners, stopping without warning, turning right from the left lane without indicating, and entering heavy traffic streams from the left without looking. Just like their elders.

I ride as carefully as I can to avoid them all, because I know that in Bali, if any local crashes into my bike because of their ineptness, inexperience or stupidity, it will be my fault. I am the foreigner; if I had had the sense to stay in my own country instead of coming here, the accident never would have happened. Ergo, it’s my fault. Balinese logic.

And if I do have an accident where a local is hurt, at best I will be expected to pay for all hospital bills, repairs to their bike, ‘compensation’ to the family and a gratuity to the police to avoid further unpleasantness. At worst, I will be beaten or killed by an enraged roadside mob.

So why do Balinese parents allow their under-aged, inexperienced, unlicensed kids to ride the family bike? They know the danger. They know that three people a day are killed on bikes in Bali alone, and that countless others are badly injured. They know that children are more at risk than adults, and they know that children will always promise to be ‘careful’ despite not having the slightest understanding of what ‘careful’ even means.

My feeling is that it’s sheer, uncaring laziness. Or a pervasive fatalism. I was with one family as their very young son jumped on the family bike and rode off to school.
“Why don’t you give him a lift?” I asked the father.
“Oh, I’m too busy”, was the reply.
I tried a different tack: “But he doesn’t have a licence …”
I got a pitying look. “Of course not. He can’t get a licence until he’s 16″. (Unspoken: “You idiot.”)
I thought I’d give it another try: “But it’s dangerous …”
“No. He knows how to ride the bike. He has been practising in the gang outside for two weeks now.”
I have no answer to that.

Finally, I asked the question that I had been avoiding, as I didn’t want to bring bad luck.
“Does he know what to do if he has an accident?”
“Oh, yes”, he laughed. “I’ve told him. Get out of there as fast as you can!”

Oh. I guess that’s OK then.

With growing impatience at my obviously retarded intellect, he also indicates that the young boy had been riding as a pillion passenger practically since he was born, “so he knows the rules”. Presumably by some variant of osmosis. Or worse, by watching his parents, both of whom scare me to death when I see their abysmal lack of road-craft when riding.

Later, as I was writing this piece, I spoke about this problem to a couple of my local friends, who gave me an ever-so-gentle spray. They politely implied that I don’t understand Balinese customs, that “this is what we do”, and that I should not bring my Western preconceptions to Bali. At least this time I didn’t get the time-honoured response of : “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back where you came from?” But I’m also sure that one will come from the affronted after they read this.

Well, maybe I don’t understand. Maybe I believe that all parents have a responsibility to keep their children from harm, and this includes not allowing them to have control of a lethal weapon  such as a car or motorbike before they are old enough to do so responsibly. Maybe I don’t want to be killed or injured by a child on a bike, or see children badly hurt even if their parents don’t seem to care.

But hey, what do I know? I’m just a bule here.

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Will It Always Be Life In The Trenches, Or Do We Start Building The Future?

January 15, 2012

The rain is so heavy that there is almost no room between drops. What little space is there is saturated with a fine mist. My poncho flaps and drums in the deluge, my bike is teetering on the edge of stability in the atrocious conditions, and my rider-survival tactics have been ratcheted up to Special Forces level. That’s because I’m on Jalan Nakula, between the river and Jalan Legian, and this stretch of ‘road’ has become terrifyingly dangerous in the last few months.

Not the best of thoroughfares even in good weather, it is now covered with a centimetre of water at its crown, and much deeper next to the high kerbs. While these are normal conditions for other parts of Bali during the monsoon season, Nakula hides an unexpected hazard for riders not familiar with this area of Legian.

The rider ten metres in front of me is proceeding at a sensible pace, but as an oncoming van swerves into the middle of the road to avoid one of the many huge potholes on the north side, it forces him to pull well to the left. I know what’s coming, because I know what lurks under the water. His bike suddenly drops and jolts him savagely as he nearly collides with the kerb. As he wrestles the machine back to the right, the handlebars are ripped from his fingers and he crashes heavily. When I reach him, he has already managed to get the bike upright, but understandably, is not in the greatest of moods. He makes no attempt to blame me – a refreshing change for Bali – but gestures angrily downwards. “Bad road”, he says, “bad, bad road.”

He’s right. About a month ago, contractors installed underground cabling along the south side of this stretch of road. They used bitumen saws to cut through the road surface and created a 40 centimetre-wide trench next to the kerb. During the construction phase, traffic was naturally chaotic because this busy road was reduced to a single lane. The trench was duly back-filled with loose gravel, and the workers disappeared, never to be seen again.

The Troublesome Trench

Naturally, the gravel settled within days. Now the road surface in Jalan Nakula drops a sheer 5 centimetres into a subsiding trench, which has made the left edge of the road completely unusable by bikes needing to filter past the long line of cars stymied by the Legian Street intersection. Anyone who drops their bike into the trench won’t get it back out onto the road easily, or without damaging the rims, even in the dry. As my bruised and soaked fellow rider found out, in the wet, when you can’t see the road surface beneath the water, it is a death trap.

Here’s a question for Bali road construction authorities: why wasn’t the back-filling in the trench compacted and the bitumen restored to finish the job? Surely it wasn’t to save money, because the heavy traffic has now caused the cut and unballasted bitumen edge to collapse and the entire road-bed to fracture in several places.

The Collapsing Road Edge

This was not hard to foresee, but nobody seems to have done that. To fix the road properly will now require a much larger expenditure, not to mention more delays as road-works shut down the street yet again.

And that, as far as I can see, is a huge problem throughout Bali. The standard of road construction appears to be very low and the materials used seem to be inappropriate for both the vehicle loads and traffic speed and volume. No provision ever seems to be made for high-stress areas such as braking areas and acceleration zones. Foundations and road beds are often insufficient, and soil testing rarely seems to be done, resulting in uneven subsidence or even total collapse into sink-holes. The actual road toppings  erode quickly, are ‘repaired’ with materials that are clearly not up to the task, and promptly disintegrate again.

The Deadly Motorbike Trap

There appears to be an endless cycle of  pumping money and resources into building and maintaining a road infrastructure that is not, and will never be up to the challenges of the present, much less the future. The poor roads, together with the separate problem of haphazard – and often truly stupid – parking practices creates massive  collateral social damage. The congestion, delays and irritation translate into economic harm for Bali. Inappropriate road maintenance strategies are not only inefficient, but are one of the factors which divert funding away from much-needed regional development projects for the future.

But we know all this. The question is, how do Bali’s road management authorities stop this death spiral? I believe the answer is in outside assistance. I don’t mean foreign investment – not just in terms of money anyway. I’m talking about expertise. There are places not too far from Bali where the technical and engineering knowledge and understanding of the properties of road-building materials are well-developed. Much as it may disturb some Indonesians to accept outside assistance, I think the time is ripe to put aside parochial attitudes and look for solutions that could benefit Bali. And I believe that this could be done without creating social imbalances, or fostering dependent mind-sets which might lead to resentment towards outsiders.

Wouldn’t it be great to have an expert body – say, a ‘Bali Roads Authority’ – with expertise being drawn from both local engineers and international participants? Wouldn’t it be great to have qualified overseas mentors, experienced in quality road design, construction and repair working side by side with local road engineers? Wouldn’t it be great to actually develop strategic, island-wide plans for an exemplary road system that could be the envy of the archipelago?

But how can Bali afford these high-priced foreign experts? Well simply, we don’t have to. I have spoken to many frequent visitors and expats who have high-level skills in everything from national water-management to airport construction. Many have said that they would love to contribute their expertise – their way of saying ‘thank you’ for the pleasure that Bali has provided them over many years. But some have also said that their offers of assistance have been politely rebuffed. Maybe that should change.

There are many NGOs which have been inspired by the original Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), including those providing the expertise of engineers, architects, fire-fighters and teachers. Most people become involved without expecting the sort of remuneration to which they would otherwise be entitled. Why not use such a model here? We might even end up with roads that work – and keep working.

Besides, I’m sure that in the anarchic environment of Bali, independent-spirited overseas volunteers in such a project would relish becoming known as ‘highwaymen’ …

UPDATE:  Several days after I wrote this, a crew was busily blocking traffic again, digging up a section of the newly laid cable. Now, as well as a dangerous trench, there is a bloody great hole for bikes to fall into, exposed cables – and a completely blocked footpath.

Cable Dug Up Again - And Just Left

So far, there has been no sign of the new, very dangerous hole being filled in. It is invisible at night, and a small ‘warning’ sign has been left lying on the ground. I just hope that cable isn’t live – if the motorbike crash doesn’t get you, the electricity will.
UPDATE 23 Jan 2012: This particular hole has now been filled in. Thank you to whoever realised the danger and acted to reduce it.

 

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The Secret Language Of Survival On Bali Roads

December 5, 2011

Bahasa Indonesia is not the only language that Bali visitors must learn – especially if you drive or ride on our roads. There is a separate, informal language for road users that, although it has no words or grammar, has its own peculiar syntax.

It is more akin to the body language used by dogs, which lets them identify strangers, assert their right of way, recognise alpha dogs, resolve territorial disputes and generally smooth the path of social interaction. Motorists and bike riders here, at least those who are still alive and uninjured, have not only learned this non-verbal language but use it fluently every day.

The first and most important rule is that size matters. Visitors from more regulated places might expect that every road user will follow the same set of guidelines, whether they are driving a bus or riding a moped. Not in Bali. Here, one’s ability to dominate a traffic situation is directly proportional to the physical size of your vehicle. It’s the Bigger Is Better Rule. So trucks give way to buses, cars give way to trucks, scooters give way to big motorbikes, and pedestrians are meant to give way to scooters. To add a little uncertainty to the system, cabs will often ignore this hierarchical structure. The magnitude  and frequency of these lapses in protocol will depend on the taxi company involved  and whether the driver is at the beginning or the end of his typically long shift.

Basically, you give way to the might, and a lack of understanding of this prime aspect of Bali traffic dialogue by newbies causes quite a few problems, many ruffled feathers, and even the occasional injury.

Visiting pedestrians are particularly vulnerable here, believing as they do that because the streets here are so narrow, they automatically qualify as footpaths. Those who wander along carriageways, three abreast in a bovine stupor, will soon get their elbows clipped by a passing motorbike mirror.  Few realise that this is in fact a practical lesson in the finer points of ‘Bali Road Language’ being administered by a fed-up motorist. The exception is, of course, for locals. Within their own village precincts, Balinese reign supreme. They may strike up conversations in the middle of the road, suddenly stop their bikes anywhere on a whim, or even close an entire main road for a ceremony. Relax, that’s normal, but don’t try it yourself.

The second rule of the secret traffic language is to do with the judicious use of lights. I don’t mean indicators, which when used at all, only serve as a visual clue that the driver or rider has made a turn some time during that day, or might be thinking about turning at some stage in the future. Or just has a fondness for flashing lights. Hazard flashers, however, are used to indicate that a car is continuing through an intersection without turning. They are never used to indicate that a car has stopped in a dangerous spot. In Bali, there is no need for this; you can safely assume that every parked car has been left in a dangerous spot.

No, the real light signal communication here  is through the use of headlights. The ‘high-beam flash’ is used in conjunction with the Bigger Is Better Rule, but it’s the driver who flashes first who gets precedence. If you are proceeding up a narrow street and an oncoming taxi is stymied by a parked car, it will generally not stop until you have safely passed the chicane, but execute The Double Flash. This is the universal Bali GOOMW (Get Out Of My Way) signal. A especially tetchy driver will triple-flash you, which is more of a GOOMFW signal, and should not be ignored. Police and other authority figures may occasionally use the Multiple Repeated Flash, also known as the GOOMFW,YI. The correct response is to stop, or move over to the left as far as you can even if it means knocking over several parked bikes and creaming the odd pedestrian to let the oncoming vehicle through.

The third rule has to do with the use of sound. A minor aspect of this is the actual engine note of a vehicle. Whatever the other complex rules say, if you hear a large truck coming at high speed, get out of the way immediately. Don’t get precious and listen for squealing brakes; most trucks here don’t have any. Get out of the way if you hear the characteristic sound of a Harley. You might theoretically have right of way, but its rider is likely to be bigger and tougher than you.

But discounting mechanical sounds, the most mellifluous part of the traffic’s  symphonic language is the horn section. Bikes will beep you as they overtake – not to hassle, but to politely warn. In terms of right of way,  it’s a He Who Beeps First, Wins Rule. If you are about to change lanes and someone beeps you, wait until they have overtaken. However, the reverse applies in some extremely narrow lanes where there are often blind corners leading to even narrower lanes, wide enough for only one bike. It is, of course, customary to beep as you approach. No audible response means you can continue, but an answering beep usually means stop until you see the other rider. So in these lanes it’s a He Who Beeps Second, Wins Rule.

A few weeks back, this particular rule caused perhaps the most absurd situation to date during my time here. I often take short cuts through narrow lanes, and one in particular has a very tight turn. I approached, politely tooted, and immediately received an answering beep. So I waited. And waited. After a while, a repeat beep elicited another beeped response. Again, no sign of a bike. Edging carefully forward and craning my neck, I managed to peer up the lane. Nothing. Grrr. So I edged the bike around the corner, beeped twice in sheer frustration – and heard a loud beep-beep in my right ear. Nearly falling off, I snapped my head around to see an alcove leading to a Bali house. And sitting serenely in a bamboo cage was a nondescript brown bird. Beep-beep, it said again. It’s difficult to do when you have no lips, but I swear it grinned at me.

Anyway, that’s Bali. Needless to say, situations will arise where the Bigger Is Better Rule conflicts with the Double Flash Rule, and cannot be resolved by the He Who Beeps First, Wins or even the He Who Beeps Second, Wins Rule. This can lead to some hairy situations, but most of these can be overcome by a judicious application of the Slow Motion Good-Natured Bullying Rule, which is normally used at all Bali intersections. This simply involves continuing in your intended direction at a slow creep until someone eventually gives way to you. However, remember that regardless of all the other rules, the Don’t Collide With Anyone Even If You Supposedly Have Right Of Way Rule always, always has precedence.

Got all that? Makes trying to learn Bahasa a piece of cake, doesn’t it?

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How To Stave Off Total Gridlock In Bali

June 29, 2011

Recent visitors to Bali who have returned after an absence of several years are shocked at the current chaos on the roads. Traffic here is like a turgid flow of molasses at the best of times. But during peak hours, it congeals in the streets into an immobile, impenetrable grout, filling the skinny spaces between the mosaic of shops and warungs on each side. Motorbikes fill every available niche between cars, mounting footpaths in their efforts to slip past immediate blockages, only to be caught in total gridlock a few metres further on. And it’s like that every afternoon. Well, that I know of anyway. I’m rarely up early enough to report on any earlier peaks.

It’s not just the sheer number of cars, or the huge number of motorbikes that is the problem either.  It’s also the anarchic behaviour, lack of spatial awareness and absence of any road-craft skills on the part of those who are in charge of these vehicles.  Nor is it the roads themselves, those weird emergent artefacts of ad hoc development which have no chance of ever having their capacity increased without tricky land acquisitions and compensation for disenfranchised business owners.

These are very real problems, and they need both strategic long-term and short-term tactical solutions. Considerate road use should be taught as part of  driver education and driver training programs. Learning to ride a bike at eight years of age – by borrowing the family rocket to zip around the back streets – might be a way (for those who survive) to discover how to keep the thing reasonably upright, but is not the way to develop road-craft. Publicising the traffic regulations might be useful too. I’m sure that a free rules booklet given out at registration renewal time would really surprise most drivers here, if only for the astonishing fact that the place actually does have rules.

We also know that big cars cause big problems in little Bali, so how about instituting a hefty annual road-use levy for anything bigger than a Karimun? A sliding scale based on size means the local government could charge an absolute fortune for those oversized 4WD monstrosities that clog up the streets, and hopefully discourage their ownership.

But no-one seems to want to address the real issue with traffic congestion here. The roads might be narrow, but their effective width has been so reduced by the insane parking practices here that most roads might as well be bike paths. Drivers park anywhere they want, unwilling to walk twenty metres after leaving their cars somewhere that will not impede traffic. Motorcyclists park nose-in to the kerb anywhere convenient for them, or on the apex of blind corners, despite enormous disruptions to the traffic flow. Cars are parked haphazardly with rear ends sticking out into traffic lanes. Often, only a single lane is left free in a busy street, one that then has to be shared by vehicles travelling on both directions. The resultant atherosclerosis chokes all movement and as a side-effect, asphyxiates road-side business.

Parking practices in Bali are so out of control that immediate action is necessary. This is something that can be done immediately to give this place some breathing space. Analyse the problem at the local level. Identify trouble spots where bad parking causes congestion. Paint the kerbs red where there is to be strictly no parking. Where parking is to be tolerated on certain sections of road, paint a white line – at a distance from the kerb equal to the width of a small car. Do this so there is enough room for two lanes of cars to pass in the road adjacent.  Issue a hefty fine for any car not parked completely within the defined space. Through the local Banjar, appoint local staff (Jakarta-style) to monitor parked cars and issue tickets. Make the fine 200k, and pay the parking boys 10% commission. Where a car is left badly-parked in non-controlled areas, and is causing traffic mayhem, glue an A4-sized sticker to the windscreen with non-removable glue. It could read, in big letters, “This Car Has Been Parked Here By A Complete Moron”. As an added extra, it could also say: “Feel free to remove hubcaps, wing mirrors and other accessories without penalty”.

Even the little dead-end street that leads to my gang is almost impassable now. A year ago, it had two cars regularly parked there. Now there are twenty-four, their proud owners draping their treasures with opaque car covers and parking in staggered formation on both sides of the narrow street. The cover means that you can’t see past them, and even on a motorbike, navigating these chicanes is stressful and dangerous. It’s almost impossible in a car. Maybe it’s time to tie car registrations to proof of availability of off-street parking. If we don’t, soon there will be no roads to actually use, except as elongated car parks.

Then, of course, there is the road layout. A perfectly good, wide road runs along the beach between Jalan Melasti and Jalan Double Six. It could do wonders to relieve the pressure on Jl. Legian, Jl. Melasti, Jl. Padma and Jl. Double Six. But it’s closed, and has been since it was built years ago. Open it. Yes, you’ll upset the beach hotels along that strip. So what? Bali’s roads are bursting – relieve the strain in any way you can.

But this is Bali, so nothing will be done. And in the meantime, every afternoon, we will continue to experience the glutinous mess of Legian Street, the disaster that is Jalan Padma and its tributaries Padma Utara and Garlic Lane. The maxed-out Rum Jungle Road, the dreaded Jalan Double Six macet, and the frustrating nightmare of Jalan Laksmana, where expats joust with locals for every square metre of road space, will keep us fuming, and late for everything. And that’s just in the Legian/Seminyak precinct.

I’d love to write about the congestion in other areas of Greater Kuta – but unfortunately, I’ve never actually been able to reach them in our traffic.

Related Post: How to Fix Bali’s Parking Chaos (from 16 June 2010)

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Let’s Keep Cycling Fun And Lycra-free In Bali!

June 4, 2011

Bike riding is on the increase in Bali. I’m not talking about motorbikes, but pushies. Sepeda. Deadly treadlies. Oh, there have always been frighteningly fit expats around who power through the streets, easily keeping pace with nominally-faster motorbikes in our terminally clogged thoroughfares. There have always been those expat women floating serenely through the traffic on their traditional style ladies’ bikes, wearing elegant long flowing dresses and looking utterly unfazed by the heat. And there have always been local kids zooming around on tiny, erratic bug-like things that are obviously an interim stage before they graduate to motorbikes at about 8 years of age. But there seems to have been a quantum leap in the numbers of cyclists recently, and this is getting scary.

Soon after sunset, when the air cools, big pelotons of young riders appear on the roads and continue swooping and darting through traffic until late at night. They seem like organised groups, and are obviously having fun. Most seem to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of road mores – in the sense that they at least – generally – stay to the left. But there is not a helmet to be seen, none of their bikes have lights, and riding three or four abreast seems to be the norm. While I hope fervently that it won’t happen, it is only a matter of time before a car ploughs into one of these nocturnal groups.

Children naturally imitate their elders, so it should have been no surprise for me to encounter such a group in one of the smaller streets in Legian last week. The trouble was, all thirty or so of the tiny riders were in pitch-darkness and all were riding fast. The entire width of the lane was occupied by excited kids looking sideways while yelling happily to each other as they swept around a blind corner, straight at me. I managed to stop my motorbike before any contact, but two of the budding BMXers still ended up wobbling into each other and falling off. Sadly, they both gave me the traditional dirty look reserved for bules in Bali, because naturally, it must have been entirely my fault.

No-one denies the health benefits of bicycle-borne exercise, or that the carbon footprint of a bike and its rider is much smaller than that of a motorbike. Except for the occasional release of methane in an exertion-induced kentut, bicycle riding is generally regarded as more friendly to the environment than motorised transport. And I am the first to encourage it – as long as this laudable pursuit does not go down the same path as it has in Australia.

On my last trip to Melbourne, I arrived on a weekend. I needed to drive to a bayside suburb along a main road which follows the line of the bay. To my surprise, it was completely closed to cars – something that apparently happens every weekend. Not for a scheduled bike race, I hasten to add, just so that recreational riders can use a main arterial road without the hassle of dealing with cars. Cyclists are the only ones who can use the road, causing untold angst to thousands of residents who have to find their way to their destinations through choked back streets that eventually feed into overloaded main roads many kilometres away. Maybe the preponderance of surrealistic Green-dominated local councils has something to do with it. Maybe it’s just that social engineering in Melbourne has finally tipped over the edge into unbridled lunacy. Who knows? While some of those weekend riders are no doubt motivated by opportunities for healthy exercise, many unfortunately give the impression of being self-centred fanatics, if not complete psychopaths.

It wasn’t enough that many of these ‘enthusiasts’ in their visually confronting harlequin-bug costumes saw fit to dominate the only viable thoroughfare, they also took over the side streets. Negotiating those congested minor routes was a nightmare. As well as the displaced cars, these streets also had to cope with clots of angry, Lycra-clad ectomorphs oozing endorphins, and consumed with an irrational rage towards anything on four wheels. They ignored stop signs and traffic lights, cut in, changed lanes without warning, and overtook cars on the left and on the right. Thank the gods that none had mountain bikes, or they would have ridden over the top of my car. Some even thumped my roof as they passed, glaring and yelling “Bloody Cager!” as they passed. Apart from anything else, I resent their hijacking of the motorcyclists’ term of endearment for a car driver. Bloody cheek!

Then, at a roundabout in Elwood, where I was going straight ahead, a pair of suicidal idiots shot past me on my left and promptly turned right across the front of my car. I stopped abruptly, despite a strong urge to keep going and reduce their bikes to scrap metal. Incensed, they promptly yelled abuse at me for daring to get in their way, for daring to drive a car, and for “destroying the planet”. Wow! L’il ol’ me – actually inciting passion in someone. Then, like a disturbed wasp nest, the other riders in the area swarmed to the defence of the aggrieved riders. Several dozen of them immediately entered the roundabout and circled endlessly, screaming epithets at me – and at all the other drivers blocked from entering the intersection. Very mature. After five minutes of this, they apparently decided I had completed my penance and rode off to find other targets.

But that’s Melbourne; this is Bali. So far, cycling here is at the same stage as it was in my youth –  a time of pleasure in healthy physical activity, a time of freedom and joy in self-powered motion. Let’s preserve that if possible; let’s encourage safe cycling through education and socialisation. Let’s do that before cycling becomes a hip fashion, a form of institutionalised arrogance and a cult politicised by inane do-gooders who have no idea of the ramifications of their actions.

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How I Escaped From The Parking Maze At Centro

May 8, 2011

A sudden need to go to Tuban sees me braving the swirling traffic in Kuta and fighting my way past the Matahari bottleneck. I have to get to Jl. Kartika Plaza in order to reach the Discovery Mall. Or Centro, or Megawati’s Parthenon, or whatever they call it nowadays. Trouble is, the traffic control gnomes have changed the way one can access Tuban yet again. I now have no option (if I want to stay legal) but to take a two kilometre detour to reach the street I want, which is less than one hundred metres away and clearly visible. Mild irritation sets in.

To hell with that. I cut through the market area instead, dodging vehicles and pedestrians and emerge victorious just short of where I want to be. Now a mere twenty metre dash against the one-way traffic remains. Unfortunately, a police car is parked on the corner where I am about to make my illegal turn. The driver eyeballs me. I eyeball him back. I turn anyway. He opens his mouth and raises his hand. I shake my head, point to myself and shout “Diplomatic Corps!”. He laughs, waves me through and I’m on my way. I mean, I could have been a diplomat; how would he know?

After a further ten minutes of dodging suicidal locals, I reach the edifice which is my destination and look for a place to park. Then the real frustration begins. The car park, which is huge, is underneath the shopping complex. I locate the narrow entry lane for bikes, stop at the barrier and pull out some money. The attendant waves it away and gives me a plastic smart card. “Pay when you leave”, he says. I’m impressed. Little did I know it was premature.

The motorbike parking area is packed, and is separated from the car area by a robust fence. I wend my way through the narrow track, my knees tightly together to avoid knocking them on the rear wheels of the thousands of bikes crammed into tiny spaces. Inevitably I have to stop a few times, dismount and shift a bike whose spatially-challenged rider has seen fit to leave jutting out and blocking the track. Equally inevitably, the evidently sight-impaired dimwit behind me blips his horn continuously while I am doing this. He smiles a lot. I don’t.

Finally, a space manifests itself and I manage to insinuate my bike into it. The noisy gentleman behind me stops and in aggrieved tones, but still smiling, informs me that “this is my space”. I tell him that MySpace is old hat, and that he should get onto Facebook. He stops smiling and roars off.

I am well inside the cavernous interior now, so rather than walk all the way back to the main road and enter the complex from the front, I look for a quick way into the mall. This involves climbing through a steel barrier fence, (displacing only a few vertebrae in the process) and squeezing past several thousand parked cars to discover a hidden door into the complex. Big mistake. The door inexplicably locks behind me and I have to climb about eight flights of stairs until I reach the top floor before I can actually enter the shopping centre itself. People politely ignore me as I stand gasping and wheezing against the wall. Finally, I get enough oxygen to stagger to an escalator back to the ground floor.

After my meeting, this time I astutely take the long way back to the car park and find my bike. Clutching my trusty smart card and money, I snake my way back through the tortuous path to the exit barrier. The man looks at me blankly. “No, no! Must pay first!” he says.  He finally gets through to me that I have to pay “the security man” before I can leave, and he does one of those 360 degree finger-pointing waves that pass for Balinese directions. He won’t let me through the barrier, so I can’t make a simple U-turn and re-enter the car park. “No, you will just go home!” he says suspiciously.  He’s not wrong. So he forces the ten bikes behind me to back up like a big mechanical millipede. This does not endear me to their riders.

So, through the maze again, until finally I find a “security man”. Except he really is a security man, and won’t take my money. “No, no, pay at security office!” he says, and points me back towards the exit gate. As I reach the exit again, I finally see the pay station. It’s out in the car parking area, behind the damn fence. I finally twig that you’re supposed to go there and pay before you go back to your bike. Which means I have to find a spot to park my bike again, climb through the fence again, pay the fee and then climb through the fence one more time before I can get out of this place.

There is a small thundercloud over my head and I am getting very tetchy. I go through the entire rigmarole, pay the fee and am told that I have 10 minutes to depart the building, or else the smart card expires. When I get back to my bike, it’s completely blocked in by locked, double-parked bikes. It takes nine minutes, plus a few popped spinal discs and assorted muscle strains to get my bike out.

I get to the exit boom. The man puts my card in the reader slot, then looks at me. “Card expired” he announces blandly. “Open. The. Gate.” I say, enunciating each word flatly and very clearly. He looks at my face and sees something there that scares him. He says nothing, but he opens the gate.

After that, even the peak-period Kuta traffic didn’t faze me on the way home.

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Dancing the Traffic Cop Tango in Bali

April 27, 2011

Getting through this Kuta road junction is like being caught between the intersecting trajectories of four machine guns. The cacophony of blaring exhausts, incessant horns and tortured suspensions of vehicles thumping over Bali’s prodigious potholes jangles the mind. This  sonic counterpoint is a metaphor for the mental turmoil that accompanies the instantaneous decision-making needed to negotiate complex traffic in Bali and survive.

Anyway, that’s my excuse for not hearing a shrill whistle blast as I zipped between killer yellow trucks, four-wheel-drive ego-boosters and bee-like swarms of crazed motorcycles. I’m relatively immune to the chaos, but my pillion rider’s state of mind registers clearly as her fingers dig painfully into my lower ribs. A fleeting moment of regret that I hadn’t insisted on her wearing a helmet passes quickly as we clear the intersection and enter a normal street where the likelihood of death is not quite so imminent.

She leans next to my ear and says: “That cop wasn’t too pleased with you. He’s blowing his whistle and waving you over.”  “Relax”, I reply loftily, “they never chase you – they’re too lazy. Always keep going when they do that.”

Unfortunately, I score a cop who isn’t lazy. In fact, by some miracle of teleportation, he is waiting for me at the next intersection where he insinuates his bike into a position that leaves me no option but to crash into him, fall off, or pull over. I pull over, and secure in the knowledge that I have done nothing wrong, grin at him. He grins back. He understands my hubris; he deals with it every day.

“I whistled at you there at Jl. Pantai Kuta”, he says. I avoid making an inane comment about Roger Whittaker and instead tell him that I didn’t hear him. I innocently ask him why he is stopping me. “No helmet”, he says, pointing at my pillion passenger. “Not required”, I say confidently. He is disconcerted. I press my advantage and say to him, “Bali law only says rider must wear helmet, not passenger”. He looks uncertain, despite the fact that I am spouting unmitigated drivel. Of course both people on a bike must have helmets – it’s not only the law, it’s plain common sense. But I’m on a roll here and I sense an advantage in our little dance, even though I’m dancing around the truth.

He looks like he is trying to remember whether the authorities have changed the road law yet again, because they never actually tell anyone, including the police, whenever they do that here. He changes tack suddenly and asks me whether my headlight was on. I tell him it was. A beat of silence ensues.  “Licence please,” he orders, changing tactics yet again. He looks at my International Driver’s Licence and his face lights up. “Ahh! Not legal in Bali!” I say confidently that it is legal actually, and his face clouds over. Quickly flipping to the last page, he sees the two stamps there, one for a car and one for a motorcycle endorsement. His face falls further.

We spend a minute or two in idle chit-chat while I try desperately to keep the smile of triumph off my face. I should have stayed alert instead of gloating, because the guy is toying with me before setting me up for his master-stroke. As he closes my licence booklet, he suddenly freezes and points to the front cover. “Oh no!” he says. “What?” I say, sucked in. “Look!” he intones with beautifully studied regret. “Licence is expired! Now have to go to court in Denpasar …” And he points his finger at the date – 11 February 2011 – clearly stamped on my licence.

I am thunderstruck. How stupid am I? I must have forgotten to put my new licence in the cover after getting it renewed earlier this year. “Umm” I say intelligently. “I think it’s in my safe at home …” He looks at me with that cop stare for a long moment. I reach into my pocket and hand him the obligatory 50,000 rupiah note. He grins. “Next time, both of you wear helmets” and sends me on my way.

On the way home, it dawns on me that his parting shot was about the helmet, an issue that I had already conned him about, and not the licence. I did con him, didn’t I? With some unease, I check my licence again, and there, clearly written on the front are the words ‘Issued 11 February 2011′. The damn thing is still valid for another year, and I finally realise that he knew that all along!

Today’s score: Cop 1, Vyt 0. Oh well, at least the money goes to his family. Back home, traffic fines go to Consolidated Revenue for the government to waste on yet another useless exercise in social engineering. Here, it’s just your standard Bali re-distribution of wealth. And it was an entertaining and compassionate way to cut me down to size. I’m comfortable with that.

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How to Fix Bali’s Parking Chaos

June 16, 2010

So there I am, trapped for more than ten long minutes in a huge gridlock in Eat Street, with traffic banked up to Ku De Ta in one direction and Jalan Drupadi in the other. Everyone’s patience is wearing thin, and a cacophony of shrill beeps breaks out every sixty seconds before fading away in helpless despair. When I finally arrive at the source of the blockage, I see an over-sized people-mover parked by the side of the road, directly opposite a construction truck full of gravel on the other side. The remaining traffic lane has been reduced to slightly more than the width of a Suzuki Terimun. Nothing can get through without enormous difficulty.

There is ample room for the van to have been parked ten metres further along, where in fact it could have pulled over closer to the kerb. But no, it has not only has been left in the only spot guaranteed to cause maximum disruption, it has been moronically positioned about half a metre away from the kerb. And not only have its side mirrors been left extended, the steering wheel has been left on full right lock, so that the protruding front wheel now blocks any chance for motorcyclists to squeeze through.

As I finally reach this this incredible example of thoughtless parking, the driver emerges from the Circle K across the road, bearing one small plastic bag containing her ‘shopping’. She imperiously holds up her hand, stopping a car whose driver has waited interminably for the chance to slip past the blockade. No way now. As soon as he stops, a swarm of motorbikes seize the opportunity to get through the gap.  She walks into the stream of moving bikes, causing them to brake suddenly, and pushes past me, rudely knocking my mirror askew. She tries to open her door, which is difficult with the crush of vehicles trying to get past. I’ve stayed relatively patient up to now, but I have reached my limit.

“Excuse me”, I say. She glares at me, her short blonde hair bristling. “Why didn’t you park over there, where you wouldn’t hold up traffic?” Her face screws up in annoyance. “Because I was doing my shopping here, IF you don’t mind”, she says petulantly, as if to a backward child. I do mind, actually. She goes on: “What, you expect me to walk in this heat?” Mmm. Ten metres is tough alright. I open my mouth to continue my carefully reasoned argument, but she snarls an anatomically impossible suggestion at me, gets in the car and drives off, nearly sideswiping a passing car. I suspect that she’s not all that creative, because she spits exactly the same obscenity at the other driver too. Nice lady.

Of course, she is not the only one in Bali who is utterly incapable of seeing the consequences of her parking choices. Locals and expats alike park cars and motorbikes here without any regard for anyone else. I have seen cars parked on blind corners, left at strange angles in parallel parking spots and abandoned parked and locked for hours across lane entrances and driveways. Then there is that nasty little T-junction in Jl. Double Six, where West-bound cars turning left into Jl. Werkudara must swing wide to the right before making the tight left turn. Naturally, every idiot in Bali feels compelled to park in precisely the spot that turning cars need to negotiate the turn. Result? Cars back and fill to make the turn, causing delays and chewing up the cobbled road surface. Chaos. And this parking madness is everywhere you look in Bali.

So what’s the solution? A zoned parking strategy might theoretically work, but not in Bali. Everyone would just ignore it. Parking inspectors? Yeah, right. No, the solution is to make it so embarrassing and inconvenient to park badly that very few would willingly do it. The technique was used on me once and I have never forgotten it.

A long time ago, when I was a callow student at an Australian university, street parking was expensive, limited to one hour, and for a young man in a hurry, simply inconvenient. Within the grounds of the institution was a car park reserved for professors, which I noticed was rarely full. I thought that the “No Parking for Students” sign surely couldn’t mean me, so I parked my little car there and left it for the day. I mean, what harm could it possibly do?

After lectures, I returned to find a very large notice stuck to my windscreen. It first informed me that I was an idiot, then politely rambled on about the inadvisability of ignoring my civic responsibilities. It was exactly in my line of vision when behind the wheel, making it impossible to drive. And when I say, stuck, I mean stuck. Here’s a tip: don’t mess with chemistry professors. The glue was some concoction which had set harder than expoxy resin and could probably have been used to glue planets together. It took a full three hours of scraping and cleaning before I could see enough to drive. I never parked there again.

I propose something similar for Bali. A large sticker saying “THIS CAR APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN PARKED BY A THOUGHTLESS MORON” could be slapped on offending vehicles when they have been stupidly left in a position which causes distress to other road users. Before long, this Adlerian solution would improve traffic flow immensely, without recourse to regulations that would be ignored anyway.

But who would be responsible for sticking these notices on offenders’ cars? Well, maybe we all should. The Bali Times could provide an insert of ten stickers per issue, which would fix the distribution problem. Just be careful how you park your own car while you’re stickering those of others. Someone may be watching.

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Anatomy of a Motorbike Accident in Bali

June 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.

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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!

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Take a Walk on the Mild Side

January 17, 2010

There are some pedestrians in Bali who choose to walk on the road. They eschew the footpath, apparently so oblivious to what is happening around them that their life expectancy can be measured in minutes. Watching them is like performing some sort of macabre countdown to a gory fate. Almost without exception, they are non-locals, seemingly treating any area where they wish to walk as their own personal fiefdom and believing themselves to be surrounded by a magical bubble of invulnerability that not only protects them, but somehow repels traffic from their sacred space.

So there I am on my motorbike again one evening, gently burbling down a typical narrow Bali street. Cars are parked to my right, reducing the already inadequate space for oncoming cars. There is perhaps a car width available for them, plus just enough room for my bike to pass them. I have maybe ten centimetres clearance on each side of my handlebars, but in Bali, you quickly learn that that is normal. There are bikes behind me, also threading their way through the tiny traffic channels with more skill, aplomb and daring than I am able to muster. Some even overtake me using non-existent gaps – an endless source of wonder and excitement. The system is flawed, but it works – as long as pedestrians stay off the road.

Suddenly, immediately ahead, a large Bintang-singleted visitor carrying a half-finished beer decides that it is too tiring, or inconvenient – or sane – to walk on the otherwise empty footpath, and steps out right in front of my bike. Even as he is doing this, I give the obligatory courtesy beep on the horn to warn him of his folly. He ignores both this and my headlight now brightly illuminating him, plants himself in front of me and slows down to a deliberate amble. His right hand creeps around his hip to the small of his back and closes into a fist – except for the middle finger, which he extends fully in the universal symbol of derision. I am two metres behind him, and doing 15 kph.

Under the circumstances, I do the only thing possible – twist the throttle to full and ride straight into him, flipping him onto the footpath where he belongs, catching a quick and gratifying glimpse of flying beer bottle and flailing pedestrian as he cartwheels away. Oh well. Next. Not 200 metres up the road, a vapid pair of self-absorbed girls, whose high heels are no match for Bali footpaths, are walking two abreast on the road. They not only block traffic behind them, but force oncoming cars to stop and give way to them as they giggle. As before, the footpath is virtually empty. Of course, I accelerate and barrel between them, laughing maniacally, watching my mirrors as they spin away and crash to the road. Heh heh!

I am in the groove now, my psychotic road rage buiding as I look for the next opportunity to give a salutary lesson to more people who have no idea of responsibility or consequences, but who know all about their inalienable rights to disrupt everyone around them for their own selfish ends. And there it is! A whole group spilling out of a restaurant, over the footpath and into the middle of the busy street, milling like a herd of wildebeest, but without the benefit of their keen intelligence. Perfect! I open the throttle wide …

Of course, none of these events occurred. But the description of what each of these lunatic pedestrians did is not only accurate, but actually happened in a single night recently. The scenes of devastation wreaked by a crazed motorcycle vigilante are fictional – no pedestrians were actually harmed in the writing of this article. But the thing is, it could easily have happened, with appalling consequences. Substitute normal (ha!) motorbike riders in Bali for the fictional maniac above, and what do you have?  You have 12 year-old school kids with no licence. You have riders whose focus is not on the traffic, but on texting. You have guys on big heavy bikes speeding in testosterone-induced displays of bravado. And you have potholes, manhole covers, white lines, cars and other obstacles that bikes must dodge – which makes them erratic, unpredictable and dangerous. You have real maniacs too – it wasn’t that long ago that a drunken visitor purloined a car and drove at high speed for several kilometres down the main street of Legian at night. He hit multiple cars and bikes and killed a pedestrian.

As a pedestrian, do you really want to become yet another ingredient in the chaotic stew of Bali road traffic? Yes, the footpaths are awkward and fatiguing to walk on. But they are the mild side of  Bali traffic, and they are more comfortable than being in traction in a Bali hospital. The roads are the wild side – please leave them for us mad motorists and riders. You might even get to stay safe and injury-free as an added bonus.

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The Zen chaos of Bali traffic

October 25, 2009

So here I am, riding my motorbike (yes, you scoffers, my girlie bike), thinking about how to write this article.  Being an active participant in Bali traffic is quite an illuminating experience, by no means limited to complex vehicular dynamics. It is a social and cultural phenomenon as well, not to mention a crash course in logistics, strategic planning, tactical implementation and group psychology. Well, maybe ‘crash course’ is a poor choice of words …  

Nevertheless, it’s an immersive learning situation and I actually enjoy being in the thick of  it. One can contemplate the fluid chaos around one’s bike while interacting with it. Staying alive is always such a good motivator, too. One has to be completely involved, the theory being that this provides practical insights which lead to better understanding, which in turn leads to being a more effective participant in said chaos. So much for theory. I really should have concentrated more on the road instead of spending so much time in the Daliesque abyss of my head. But even if I had my full attention on the traffic, I could not have predicted what was about to happen one minute later.

With my indicators on for the last 20 metres, my side street coming up on the right and already leaning into a gentle turn from the middle of the road, I see in my right mirror a looming apparition. The urban warrior behind me, ignoring my blinkers and already-turning bike decides to overtake on my right. Luckily a light tap on the brakes stands me up enough for him to miss me (just), but, tyres smoking,  he careers into the bikes parked at the side of the road. The impact is fortunately gentle and only two parked bikes fall over. My last glimpse of him reveals a face turned to me full of annoyance – at me!

Later, I read a forum post that explained the logic. I’m not a local. The other guy didn’t personally invite me to Bali. If I hadn’t been in Bali, this never would have happened. Therefore, the accident was my fault. I think it’s called transductive reasoning. Or maybe it’s something to do with the “if” fallacy which my father used to explain to me whenever I made some feeble excuse which included the ‘if’ word. He would say: “If mushrooms grew under your nose, you wouldn’t have to go into the forest to pick them”. Never made sense at the time, but now that I’ve been exposed to Bali traffic, I think I’m beginning to see what he meant.

Despite my brush with death (oh all right, my brush with a possible scraped knee) I still believe that Bali traffic has a flow about it, a organic flux that makes driving in this frantic crucible work in most cases. There seems to be both a scary lack of personal responsibility coupled with a Zen acceptance that everything will work out fine in the end. Unlike in my home country, there is no road rage as such. That seems to be reserved for after a serious accident instead of before. My friends tell me that if I’m involved in a death or injury situation (assuming I can still move), I should get the hell out of there and report to the nearest police station. A sobering thought.

I’ve learned some simple rules to help me survive so far. Treat all turns as merges. Think zipper. Treat all intersections as the merging of two traffic streams at right angles. Give way only to those you are about to hit, or are about to hit you. Travel at the speed of the surrounding traffic. Drive in a bubble, concerning yourself only with the people in front and to the sides. The ones behind can take care of themselves. Assume that anyone joining traffic from left or right kerbs will not look before accelerating. Above all, follow the medicos’ creed: “First, do no harm”. It doesn’t reduce the chaos, but it does make it a little more bearable.

And it’s not just cars and bikes that make Bali traffic so chaotic. Don’t forget the most dangerous and annoying road users of all – pedestrians, especially tourists. These are people that think nothing of suddenly stepping out into the roadway in front of a motorbike – for no other reason that they can’t be bothered to use the footpaths. Or passengers that force their cabs to stop in the middle of a narrow street for five minutes, gridlocking everything for two kilometres while they get their wallets out, argue about the fare, demand their 2,000 Rp change and complain about Bali traffic … 

But you know what – I love it. It’s alive. I feel like a corpuscle in some huge circulatory system. OK, it’s slow and I won’t get to where I am going in time for my appointment. So what? It’s Bali – neither will the people I am meeting. Jam karet. And in all the grand confusion, it still all makes sense somehow. Dean Koontz, in his novel The Darkest Evening of the Year says: “At the core of every ordered system … is chaos. But in the whirl of every chaos lies a strange order, waiting to be found.” He could well have been talking about Bali traffic.