Everybody thinks they’re a good driver. Also, almost all people I’ve talked to about the subject believe that their fellow-countrymen are the worst drivers in the world. That’s not strange, since most people drive mostly within their own country, and thus encounter the most cases of bad road behaviour right there (in psychology this is called availability bias).
I can’t be a judge of the matter. I don’t drive. (I have a drivers license, and would get behind the wheel in an emergency, but I generally avoid it.) And while I spend a lot of time ‘on the road’ in a figurative sense, not that much of it is actually spent on the road.
Driving is silver, walking is gold
I do walk a lot, though. Walking is my favourite way of getting around. It is slow going, so I get to notice details that I wouldn’t from a vehicle. I get to go places that would otherwise have been inaccessible. I get to be out in the fresh air. As an avid walker I do notice how drivers deal with pedestrians. Sometimes they are considerate, slowing down to let you cross the road. Sometimes they’re assholes, aiming for that puddle next to you while you are walking along the roadside.
These are not just individual differences. I’ve also noticed significant differences per country, and I thought I’d share my observations with you. Imagine that you are trying to cross a fairly busy road on foot. There are no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings nearby, at least none that people will actually respect. This is how drivers from the four countries where I’ve spent the past three months behave in such a case.
The Vietnamese will generally not slow down or make an active effort to let you cross. They are, however, very watchful for anyone who is trying to cross the road, and will make an effort to evade you. I’ve come to know the Vietnamese as an industrious and entrepreneurial people, who are always in need to get somewhere. An empty spot on the road is simply a waste of space, so you’re just going to have to blend in with the traffic. If you cross slowly enough, drivers will generally succeed in evading you. And if this doesn’t seem to work, you just hold up your hand, palm facing outwards, and a driver will stop to avoid a collision.
Of the four countries I visited recently, Laos is the poorest. Very few people can afford a car, and even motorbikes are not nearly as common as in its neighbouring countries. Laos is also the only country where it seems relatively normal to travel by bicycle or on foot–in other countries I often get stares like I’m some kind of extraterrestial when I am walking along the roadside. Hence the road crossing problem isn’t much of an issue here. When people do drive, though, they consider themselves king of the road, and anyone and everyone will have to make way for them.
Thai people are known for their friendliness, and this characteristic extends to the road. They are generally considerate drivers, and will often enough slow down a bit to let you cross the road. Nobody is in a real hurry to get anyewhere, so they might as well let you pass… sabai sabai. It is not uncommon either for someone to stop to ask where you’re going, and offer you a lift. After all, the fact that you’re walking probably means that you’re down on your luck, and for a Thai person it’ll be good karma to offer you a helping hand.
Malaysia is by far the richest country in Southeast Asia (save mini-countries like Singapore and Brunei), and pretty much everyone owns a car here. Somehow being on the road turns the normally polite Malays into real jerks. If they see you trying to cross a road, they will press the pedal to the metal to shorten the gap with the car in front of them and give you an extra scare. Malaysian cars do not seem to be outfitted with novelties like breaks and blinkers. Drivers will just take a turn at full speed and expect you to jump out of the way. I’ve even seen locals wait for minutes to cross a road, as they wouldn’t dare it as long as the road wasn’t completely free.
Drivers elsewhere in the world
So what about the rest of the world? I could go on and compile a list for other countries where I’ve been. I might do that someday. But why not let you, the reader speak out?
How competent are the drivers in your country? And but how do they behave when they encounter a pedestrian? Does being in a car get their blood boiling, or is it a meditative experience? Let me know in the comments below!