17 09 2009

As in most things excepting perhaps weddings and housework, driving in Sri Lanka is an activity ruled and dominated by men. And as in other activities, that dominance is often indisciplined, ill bred and frequently dangerous to other people. This is nothing new. Everyone knows that getting your licence is simply your pass to enter an arena where bigger and faster is better and safer.

Over the past ten years, the roads in Colombo have been steadily improving in quality and design. Undoubtedly we have seen major advances in signage, planning and road building – which give the safety-conscious driver hope that some day we too might have something approaching orderliness and discipline on our streets. But traffic management is not often apparent and policing is weirdly selective – (for instance, talking on a cellphone while driving is severely frowned upon, while driving randomly all over the road is not).

Drivers tend to pick and choose which rules to obey and which to ignore entirely. The red traffic light used to cause a sort of scrum of vehicles all trying to get through the intersection at once but this seems to be getting less frequent. Still, there is usually at least one overweight individual on a small and ancient motorbike with a vast load of coconuts or three tiny children at the back, who can’t see the point of waiting and will wobble forth uncertainly at the last minute, causing frantic braking and swerving by oncoming traffic. These episodes are not helped by the traffic police suddenly deciding to wave people through the red lights at peak hours, which jams the flow elsewhere and increases people’s confusion about what the lights are there for in the first place.

As we all know, while the lane indicators on every road are clearly painted in white, no one ever pays any attention to them. This means that no one really knows where anyone else is planning to go, while many uncertain drivers tend to float diagonally across the lines, which is terrifying. Add to this the fact that lots of drivers often signal a left turn and turn right, or vice-versa, or even just leave their indicators on for no reason at all…and things get very complicated.

Sri Lankans have invented signals and driving habits that are unique to us. Flashing your headlights rapidly, (especially at an intersection) means “I’m coming through, whatever happens. GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY.” Using your hazard lights at an intersection means (not: “oh dear, beware, I’ve had an accident/flat tyre/baby vomit episode and can’t move.”) but: “I’m going straight ahead through this intersection. SO GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY.” There’s also The Swing that occurs when some male drivers observe young girls walking on the road and swing towards them, scare them and drive away laughing uproariously. The Swing is also frequently used by the huge buses that drive like juggernauts directly at everything on the road. All buses drive at incredibly furious speeds everywhere, as if the drivers were on speed themselves – and one can observe the trapped passengers inside being thrown around like peas in a can or if its really packed, swaying together in a badly coordinated heap. This is a war that is waged freely across the roads every day, at the risk of everyone’s lives.

Parking is a whole story in itself. Suffice it to say that not too many people have learned the fine art of reverse parking, which means that three parked cars usually take up the space of five. Pedestrian crossings are another tale of woe. Observe the poor pedestrian hovering at the edge of the road at the crossing, stepping forth and drawing back in terror as the traffic swoops by regardless, until a sympathetic policeman steps forward and stops the headlong rush for a few seconds, allowing them to scurry across while the halted vehicles grumble and lunge…

And then of course, there are the three wheelers. Some people like to get excited about the three-wheeler. They talk sentimentally about how cute they are, how handy and convenient and so cheap! What friendly chaps the drivers are! Those quaint pictures of babies on the inside, and even quainter verses about ‘Mother, where would I be without you.’ painted on the rear.

Well. Quaint they may be. Environmentally friendly, safe or road-rule-conscious they are not. Bajaj drivers are friendly. That much is true. But they’re also completely fearless. Or suicidal. Once you’re inside, all hell breaks loose. The bajaj being a relatively small vehicle, it is possible to squeeze it into the smallest of spaces. Up the pavement, through the drain, down the alleyway….if they could drive on top of the other cars, I beleive they would. To the bajaj driver, the roads are just a space to be driven all over. So they do. So while they are doubtless serving a great need, (being so cheap and handy and quaint and all), they are also a pain in the neck to every other driver on the road. However, it is very hard to be mad with the bajaj and its driver for very long. I’m not sure why. Maybe because they’re both so quaint.

And let’s not forget to mention the motorbikes. His vehicle being smaller even than the three wheelers, the motorbike rider will do anything to get ahead of everyone else. Creeping, crawling, swerving, edging in between, holding on to other vehicles… The motorbike will cut in front of you, come up very fast on your left, proceed very, very slowly in front of you on an empty road or, since he’s usually positioned close behind – practically up your exhaust – if you brake, he will drive into the back of you.

Male drivers vastly outnumber females in Sri Lanka, as I guess they do in varying degrees in most countries. And male drivers in Sri Lanka believe, (again I think, like their counterparts in other places), that they are infinitely better drivers than their womenfolk – always have been, always will be.

I disagree.

Granted, women are not as bullheaded, aggressive or egotistical as the average man, and for these reasons women do not battle around the roads, fighting for every inch of space at the highest possible speeds. Instead, women tend to drive cautiously. They are usually very patient, give way to other drivers and generally display better manners and better instincts than any male driver I ever saw. In fact, I believe that if our conditioning did not cause us to give in to the constant bullying we women-drivers experience on the roads, we would indeed be so obviously superior to men as drivers that the matter would be beyond debate.

Anyway, here are some handy hints for driving in Sri Lanka.

Be very calm.

Expect suprises.

Maintain at least three feet of space all around you at all times.

(Because everyone else will be trying to get as cosily close to you as they possibly can)

And finally – don’t ever, ever, ever be in a hurry to get anywhere.



4 responses

17 09 2009

fully agree that police men at junctions cause more delays and dont solve any of the problems!

and some of the words written at the back of three wheelers are so whimsical and fantastic they deserve a whole other post…
-Pol Sambol

19 09 2009

ha yes. thats a good idea. we must do that….
– vatura

23 09 2009

oh excellent! you guys are on kottu now. hopefully that means wider readership. fingers crossed.

23 09 2009

we are slightly astonished. 🙂

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