A Malaysian Journal:

Motorcycle Gangs

(3 Jul 98)

Copyright 2002, D. Crocker, Brandenburg InternetWorking
A series of notes on living and working in Malaysia, during Jackie's Senior Fulbright Fellowship to Universiti Putra Malaysia, near Kuala Lumpur. Copies may be freely distributed, but must retain this preamble. Previous notes are located at www.bbiw.net/amj. To subscribe send me a note. /Dave <dcrocker@brandenburg.com>

As I recall it, the movie opens with a very close shot of Marlan Brando's face, the wind whipping his hair and very loud motorcycle noise blaring away. As the camera pans back, we see that he is leading a long string of mean-looking young toughs. Trouble is inevitable.

Cut to Universiti Putra Malaysia, trying to turn from the small, 4-lane road that runs along the main entrance, into the smaller 2-lane road that leads in... and out of the university. A left-hand turn into the university is direct; it doesn't cut across a lane, so there's nothing to worry about. Silly me. Just as I'm about to start the turn, a swarm of scooters buzz out of the university road, making a right-hand turn in from of me, sounding and looking more like a pack of bees than anything else.

Which do you think is the more dangerous?

No contest, of course. Brando's crew wouldn't last 30 seconds against Malaysian scooter drivers.

Driving in Malaysia is certain to be one of the continuing items in these notes. I'll try not to belabor the topic, but it does beg belaboring. It's quite simply amazing.

Malaysia has the worst accident rate in the world. Everyone here knows it and they always and immediately blame it on the motorcycles. (It's a mantra. I've noticed that even Jackie automatically feeds the line into the conversation when the topic of Malaysian driving statistics comes up.) Indeed, it is like having two entirely separate systems of driving, applied to the same set of roads. One system is for cars and the other is for the scooters, and the fact that they cohabit the same roads just makes things more interesting.

However do not be fooled. Remove all the scooters -- and it often seems as if their drivers are working quite hard to help achieve that goal -- and you'd be left with Malaysian car drivers. They aren't nearly as dangerous as the scooter drivers, but I'm not all that sure Brando would notice. It points up the truth in statistical analysis about finding experimental "difference" without real "meaning". The cars here will scare you just as badly as the scooters. And they weigh more. I think.

It doesn't help that Malaysia drives on the British side of the road or that we are currently operating without auto insurance. But that is another storey, to be told after it is resolved. Meanwhile I just remind myself that insurance has no causal relationship with accidents. Having it won't prevent them.

Some scooters have very good acceleration and others have very poor passing speed. Overall, scooters are subject to different speed and acceleration physics than cars. Perhaps because of this difference in power, they take advantage of opportunities to pass cars, whenever they can. Americans are also used to sitting at an intersection and having scooters or cycles edge up to the head of the line. The difference, here, is that there well might be 10 or 15 of them on each side of you. When you finally get to move, they might all decide to turn. So you do, too.

I often start to make a right-hand turn, to cross the other lane, and experience a sinking feeling that a car will come from behind, in that right-hand lane, and hit me. That is, after all, the side of the road cars traveling in my direction have always been on. The fact that I am next to the center of the road, turning right, and that the side that I am about to cross has ONCOMING traffic, rather than vehicles traveling in my own direction, is irrelevant to the pit of my stomach. It always gets queasy, even though I keep reminding it that no one is coming down the lane to my right in the same direction I'm traveling.

Except for scooters.

They's pass you on any side, at any time. Doesn't matter how much room there is, whether there really IS oncoming traffic, whether you are at an intersection, stopped, or traveling at full speed. They do whatever they want, whenever they want. You simply have to watch for them. All the time. Repeatedly. And yet again.

The only saving grace is that there is a smoothness to most of their actions. If you know they behave as they do, you can generally anticipate when they will cut you off, or herd you into a turn. But then, I said generally.

The sheer quantity of these things is also daunting. When we are stopped and surrounded by 10 or 20 or 30 of them, I sometimes simply wait until they have moved on, before getting into gear. Oddly, the cars behind us rarely honk. They know exactly why I'm paralyzed.