Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Motorcycle fright

One of the most unnerving sights in Thailand, and much of southeast Asia, is the practice of packing a group of people onto a motorcycle, then speeding off through the chaos of the region's traffic. It is especially frightening to see entire families on a bike, with the smallest child perched in front. Generally, none are wearing helmets, and if one does, it is not the child. Even westerners adopt the Thai way: I have been surprised to see Americans driving motorcycles with un-helmeted children sitting in front, dangerously exposed to the harsh realities of traffic physics.

Using motorcycles is a relatively inexpensive way for Thais to get around; it's a practical mode of transportation used to get from one point to another.
Motorcycles weave through traffic with ease and are always three deep at the red light, roaring off the instant the signal switches to green. Westerners are especially vulnerable to taxi door-motorcycle collisions, as they are not used to the dashed lane markers serving as legitimate motorcycle lanes, and simply open the door upon arrival without bothering to look behind for fast approaching bikes. Westerners are also vulnerable as motorcycle drivers, often failing to carefully estimate the space available. One colleague is now in a hand cast, having been on the losing end of his motorcycle and a car's side-view mirror.

In addition to the increasing number of automobiles, it is very common to see pedestrians, bicycle riders, pedal carts (some actually on the freeway), push carts, wheelbarrows, sleeping dogs, small herds of domestic livestock, and the occasional elephant. Throwing all of this into the mix of speeding traffic seems to be a certain recipe for disaster. Amazingly, one rarely sees an accident at all.

Thinking about this oddity, I have my own theory: Because of all the obstacles that are guaranteed to be in a driver's way while negotiating traffic, there seems to be an instinctive "flock mentality" that has evolved. Entire stretches of traffic respond in unison, often several lanes across in the blink of an eye, much like hundreds of birds together in flight. As a result, errant canines, swerving bicycles, and distracted pedestrians are spared.
As a colleague wryly mused as we swerved our way to school in a taxi: "What are all these dashed lines on the road for?"

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