Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bravely Conquering the Open Roads

Or, more accurately, “cautiously navigating the narrow and crowded sois.” But “conquering the open roads” sounds better.

I’ve learned to drive in Thailand. It’s strange, with the whole driving-on-the-left thing. Also because I think traffic laws in Thailand are a lot like the pirate’s code in Pirates of the Caribbean – they’re more like guidelines than actual rules. Consider the following:

- If you are turning right, you yield the right-of-way to oncoming traffic. Unless you can jump the light faster than the oncoming traffic. Or unless there’s a gap of at least one meter, and you can intimidate oncoming traffic into stopping. Then you and the five cars behind you can all turn right.
- Traffic in a traffic circle moves clockwise. Unless you are a motorcycle, or you don’t see any traffic coming, or you see traffic coming but *think* you can make it in and out of the traffic circle without a collision.
- Turn signals and headlights are primarily for decoration. Especially headlights, although high beams are useful for signaling to other vehicles that they should not pull out in front of you.
- Tapping the brakes is a sign of weakness. Do not tap on the brakes (I am considering disabling the brake lights while I break myself of this bad habit).
- At a four-way stop, the person with the biggest car goes first. Or the person with the most guts. Or whoever can intimidate everyone else into stopping. If you’re a motorcycle, just sail on through without looking around – the cars will mostly likely stop for you. If you aren’t the type to take risks, inch your way out until other vehicles have no choice but to stop for you.
- You know that scene in “Footloose” where they play chicken in the tractors? Yeah, that. On the roads. Every day.

And there are some things that are just understood, it seems. At least by the Thais. I don’t think I understand any of it. From what I’ve observed, lane usage generally goes like this:
1. The far left lane is for motorcycle parking
2. The next lane over is for car parking
3. The lane next to the car parking lane is for songtaews to stop and pick up/drop off passengers
4. The final lane (the far right lane) is for driving.

You can see how this gets complicated for two- and three-lane roads.

Also, expect more lanes to be used if there is a market in the vicinity, or if it is the end of the line for one or more songtaew routes (they tend to accumulate for some reason). And don’t forget, some markets are day markets and others are night markets, so just because the roads are fairly clear at one time of day does not mean they will be that way all the time.

Road construction can also cause problems. I was driving home from work the other day and suddenly there was oncoming traffic in my lane. Why? Because there was construction up ahead, and they had shoved all the traffic over two lanes. There were no cones or signs to warn about this, I just saw cars headed my way and moved over ASAP.

I’m terrified of getting into a serious accident. There are motorbikes everywhere, and while there’s a helmet law that is generally observed for adults, it doesn’t seem to apply for children. That makes no sense! It is scary to see tiny kids – toddlers and babies – being dropped off at daycare on a motorbike, and not even wearing a helmet. But dad or mom has a helmet on. And car seats are rare here – they’re imported so they’re incredibly expensive, like $250 for a good infant carseat. There doesn’t seem to be any real regulation of drivers, either - there’s a child going to John’s school whose mom has epilepsy, and will drive with her baby on her lap. She doesn’t see anything wrong with it at all.

Oh, and there’s a law on the books here that, in the event of a fatality in a car accident, the surviving party is automatically responsible. It doesn’t matter what the other person was doing at the time. The dead person could have driven into a parked car while drunk, and the owner of the parked car would be responsible. Someone has to be responsible and obviously a dead person cannot assume responsibility so. . .there you go. Thai “logic” in action.

There’s also a whole different parking philosophy here. Most places were built with the idea that the majority of people take public transportation or drive motorcycles. As more people acquire cars, there is a real strain on the parking resources in the city. There is NOWHERE that we go where it is really easy to park. Often, when we go shopping, cars are parked perpendicular to all the cars in parking spaces. You just leave your car in neutral, and the wheels straight. Then, if someone needs to get out, they’ll push all the cars in that row forward/back to make room to get out. Most places also have parking attendants around to help. We also leave the car in neutral when it’s parked in front of the house, and our neighbors push it out of the way as needed.

Crazy. That’s all I have to say.


Ariana said...

HAHAHA Holy cow! That sounds somewhat like Utah. ;-) You are a brave woman!

As the the leaving the car in neutral so people can move it -- that's funny! I have a friend who spent the last 4 years living in South Korea. In their highrise that's how you do it. There's a floor for the cars to park, but they are all squished in. You must leave it in park so people can push it to get out. Nuts!

Drew said...

Sounds like driving in Boston!