Millennium Post

Right of way is determined by size

A British friend was booking a holiday that would take her to several Asian cities. ‘Shall I bring my driving licence?’ she asked on the phone. I replied: ‘Sure. And I’ll organise the funeral.’

Europeans should never be allowed to drive in Asia unless they have medical proof of Total Invulnerability, i.e. they need a birth certificate proving they were born on the planet Krypton.

You see, in England, if a car flashes its lights at you, the message is: ‘Do go first, please; I couldn’t possibly take precedence.’ If a car flashes its lights at you in Asia, the message is: ‘Get outta the way! I’m coming through! Banzaaaaai!’ And that’s a direct quote from my grandmother, whose Morris Minor Traveler was the world’s first Weapon of Mass Destruction.

Road travel in Asia is bizarre. If you are in a country where people drive in a careful, orderly way, like Japan, cars have a special seat-belt for every bodily protuberance. But if you are in a country where vehicles ricochet around like wrecking balls ripping up condemned estates, many cars have no seat-belts and some don’t even have doors.

This column is being written while bouncing in the back of a taxi in China, a country with a very Asian code of driving. Bicycles give way to motorcycles which give way to cars which give way to trucks which give way to tanks which give way to presidential vehicular entourages. Pedestrians give way to everybody, all the time. Some roads in Beijing are so uncrossable that entire communities live and die without ever managing to get to the other side.  

In Asia, traffic lights have the same colours as elsewhere on the planet, but the meanings differ. Green means go. Amber means go faster. Red means put your foot flat on the floor and go through at twice the speed of light, because then no one can see you. Anyway, I gave the Englishwoman the unwritten rules of the road for drivers in Asia.

Rule 1: There are no rules, except the golden rule: cows get priority.

Rule 2: All traffic drives on the left, except for traffic which drives on the right and traffic which drives in the middle.

Rule 3: All drivers are obliged to help break the record for largest number of vehicles abreast on a two-lane highway.

Rule 4: Signaling before you turn is considered bad form, since surprises are more fun.

Rule 5: When driving at night, headlights should be kept at full beam to blind oncoming drivers, or switched off [see reference to ‘surprises’ in rule 4].

She asked: ‘If you are overtaking, which side do you go on?’ I told her: ‘You should only overtake on the right or the left, or under, or over.’ She said that her neighbour had told her she would be safer in a car, because vehicles often went on the pavements. I told her this was true. ‘Yes, but most drivers are careful to follow the law, which says: Avoid running over pedestrians unless necessary.’

After she rang off, I got thinking. Learning to stay alive on the roads in this region is an excellent way of acquiring life skills. In fact, I would go so far as to say [I feel a series of aphorisms coming up]: everything I need to know I learned driving a car in Asia.

1. If you unexpectedly get close to someone, give them a smile.

2. If you get close to someone who hasn’t noticed you are there, make a noise.

3. Bright lights blind people.

4. Right of way is determined by size.

5. Suspiciously kind strangers who offer to drive you round the bend will eventually drive you round the bend.

6. On the journey of life, always travel with friends.

I’d better stop writing now. We are approaching a junction at which the traffic lights have just turned red and my taxi driver is about to go into warp speed.

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