Archive for the ‘BALI TRAFFIC’ Category


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.