Friday, January 16, 2004

Driving Cultures

I don't drive in Venezuela - for various reasons I have been assigned a driver, Luis. He is careful, considerate and only occasionally does he get mad at other drivers. Which, in my opinion, is nothing short of a miracle. He and I have agreed that most local drivers are anarchists - a cultura de anarchia - when behind the wheel. Red lights mean nothing - typically five cars run the red light everytime it changes! Lane discipline is non-existent. For a people whose basic disposition is extremely friendly the motor car seems to provide an escape for their collective alter egos.

Other countries have similar behind the wheel traits. Thailand is fortunately mostly peopled by Thais and they have a unique but simple rule that I called the "Bangkok Rule" many years ago. It goes like this. Humans have been given exactly 180ยบ of peripheral vision. Therefore, if you look straight ahead all the time you will not see anything behind you. Assuming that if you can't see it then it does not exist, and also that all other drivers adopt the same driving position of eyes straight ahead, then it follows that you only have to worry about drivers and vehicles that are in front of you! Surprisingly this works in Thailand.

Singapore, on the other hand, cannot follow this simple rule. Too many cultural groups are mixed into one small space. Here you really do have to check on the ethnic groups of surrounding drivers and then make a decision on how to drive among them. To some extent this applies to any multi-cultural society.

In rural Texas, assume that the large, probably, old Detroit steel sedan in the fast lane is not going to pull over to let you pass. The driver is doing the speed limit - period. At the same time you will be threatened in the rear view mirror by the front bumper of an 18 wheeler literally hovering inches from your rear windshield.

In Tunisia, drivers often seem to believe that the quickest way to heaven is to pass a large truck on the brow of a blind hill, ignoring the double white lines. Many of these drivers are actually Algerian long distance taxi drivers. Somehow they, as well as their passengers, manage to stay alive. It was in Tunisia that I learned the best "finger" sign I have ever seen. Bechir, my driver, showed me how to do it. Extend index finger in the air and thrust it upward at the same time twisting the entire hand anti-clockwise (right handed instruction!). I have tried it in other countries but it never feels the same as when done in native Tunisia!

The culture in England has changed over the years to the point where it is much more hostile. Except on country lanes when the friendly wave is still a feature. On the motorways it seems to be a case of "I'm in a greater hurry than you so let me pass", while courtesy in parking lots has definitely declined. Dog eats dog is the rule. Perhaps it has something to do with the high cost of everything to do with driving?

In summary, here is my list of "best and worst" scenarios:

Lane Discipline: Best - UK, Worst - Venezuela
Red Lights: Best - Singapore, Worst - Venezuela
Double White Lines: Best - Texas, Worst - Tunisia
Breaking the Speed Limit: Best - Nowhere!, Worst - UK, despite all those cameras!
Courtesy: Best - Rural areas, off road anywhere, Worst - Urban areas

Of course this list is based on experience and not all countries have been considered. So there could be worse, there could be better!

Finally, I shot a short movie with the Finepix S7000 and this can be downloaded here. But be warned, it is a large file, 17 MB!