Driving While Asian

A friend of mine in Southern California law enforcement confided an open cop secret to me one evening over too many beers. Apparently there is a term often used by Golden State traffic officers, “DWA”, which stands for “Driving While Asian” (as politically incorrect as this may be, it is probably an improvement over its predecessor, “OBW”, which stood for “Oriental Behind Wheel”). These do not represent a particular offense, but rather a loosely defined group of infractions such as imprecise lane discipline, ungainly merging, speeds inconsistent with surrounding traffic, and so on.

The reality of the situation, or at least one reality, is quite at odds with the American perception. As I have come to notice while driving in Bali, on narrow potholed roads with heaps of cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes, there is a strange but distinct order to the traffic pattern: basically, you are responsible for the avoidance of unwanted contact with anything that lies in front of you. If you have to move over, you don’t look in the mirror, you simply count on the guy behind you to be playing by the same set of rules, which for the most part, he does. It’s weird (and when the fellow in the smoky diesel bus directly behind you gives a friendly toot on his air horn, downright scary!), at least to Western drivers, but it seems to work. And it goes a long way toward explaining the seemingly erratic driving of some of North America’s Asian immigrant population.

Driving in Bali is not unlike driving on a race course, and in that context, the drivers are world class: one drives as fast as conditions will allow (for there are no speed limits), one is constantly on the lookout for small holes in the traffic (on either side of the road) to slip into to further one’s forward progress, and one is blithely unconcerned about anything that might be in the rear view mirror (that is assuming that one’s vehicle even has a rear view mirror). There is one major departure from the world of racing, though: seatbelts and helmets are clearly for sissies or tourists.

For the novice, Balinese roads are simply chaos, but the more you watch, the more the patterns emerge. The rare lines on the road are simply suggestions, not legally binding in any way, as far as I can gather. At intersections, traffic is always in flux; at any given moment, vehicles are moving in all four directions (even on one-way streets), narrowly avoiding one another as they creep forward. If Bob Fosse had choreographed traffic, this is what it would have looked like. It would seem that brakes are rarely used; I have visions of Balinese junkyards stacked with rusted-out hulks of automobiles and motor scooters, all with shiny unused brake discs (the horns, by contrast, are all well beyond repair).

Bodies are packed like sardines into any moving conveyance, for instance, truckloads of pilgrims heading for a seaside ceremony in advance of New Year’s, or minivan taxi passengers in crowded Kuta.

My favorite part, although sometimes it made me cringe, was watching how many people could be transported by one 100cc motor scooter. Saki saw five at one point, the record for the trip. My personal best was four, although style points had to be awarded for this family: father driving; young daughter standing up in the footwell in front of him, shielded from traffic by dad’s arms on the handlebars; mother riding on the back (sidesaddle, no less!), while (get this…) breastfeeding an infant! (Sadly, you’ll have to take my word for this one, as I have no picture.)

By any measure, the Westerners on the road were seriously outnumbered and outgunned, hopelessly outclassed as drivers. I rather suspect that the Balinese police have their own “DWA” acronym, but that it stands for “Driving While American” or “Driving While Australian.”

NOTE: thanks, as always, to ace photographer, Saki Aoki.

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