Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Driven to Distraction: A Motorist's Lament
As a Scot resident in Japan, you prepare yourself mentally to be shocked and awed by a variety of cultural differences on an almost daily basis. After a while of being continually being served squid-eyes and raw eggs you gain a learned indifference to those sorts of daily culinary atrocities, and after about the 100th crotch-grab you are even able to take that with desensitized ease. However, sometimes - just sometimes - a cultural difference will pop up unannounced with such alien vigour as to completely boggle the mind.
Of course, as we all know, the place where we are most susceptible to fall prey to the ugly vulture of bad temper is at the wheel of a motor vehicle. It seems that in a car, even the tightest wound coils of human virtue unravel and start damning and cursing other motorists. One need only think back to family holidays, with their excesses of ring-road traffic jams, to imagine the familial good humour disintegrating in a haze of hissed insults and pointed criticism of Dad’s route-planning.
This perhaps explains my chagrin to be driving on a narrow, unlit, mountain road, turning a blind bend and encountering a parked vehicle in the middle of the road with its hazard lights blinking, while the driver stood by the side of the road catching frogs with a net. One emergency stop later, I was driving away fuming in an impotent rage. This sort of thing actually happens a lot in Japan. In Britain, hazard lights are only deployed in an emergency, if at all, whereas in Japan the hazards are chucked on if the driver needs to nip into the shop for a tin of juice. The Japanese as a people are unusually apologetic, in Japanese one has often apologized three or four times before a conversation has even begun – criminals are even often released if they say they are sorry. The hazard light is a way of saying “sorry!” for bad driving practices even as they are being committed. While this will drive a foreigner up the wall this is perfectly reasonable for the Japanese.
My brush with death of course got me thinking about this. Worldwide there are many different conventions for driving. In Cambodia for instance there are no lanes and right of way is determined more or less by a game of chicken, in which two vehicles will go for it at once and the first driver to slam on the anchors in naked terror is forced to give way. Luckily since Cambodia has more or less a lack of cars this does not happen very often.
On a recent trip to Hanoi I got to know another inventive, if flawed traffic system. Hanoi is a city of roughly 5 million, and has about 3 million scooters and motorcycles. There are no lanes here either, and the traffic flows in one direction like a river. Rarely does traffic ever flow two ways at once. In addition to this, the horn is used here rather than as a tool to register one’s dissatisfaction with another driver as some bizarre form of orientational equipment. While honking the horn constantly to inform other drivers of their whereabouts, the Vietnamese driver uses the other driver’s honks to disseminate their locations from the cacophony. I wouldn’t be surprised if most Vietnamese drivers could drive with their eyes closed, so much they rely on the horn to orientate themselves. It’s almost like a bat’s sonar. The honking usually starts with the morning traffic around 4:30 am and continues long into the night. How anybody gets any sleep at all is a mystery to this confounded westerner. The Japanese by contrast use the horn primarily as an expression of thanks to other motorists – like the British they would rather suck in any anger relating to other drivers and rage about it later in private.
If driving conventions differ from country to country, surely must attitudes to driving. A recent EU-wide survey by the RAC has revealed various different attitudes displayed by residents of the EU. Unsurprisingly, the Brits take the crown for the most uptight drivers, with a whopping 87% revealing that they sometimes became “very annoyed” with drivers. Quite what very annoyed encompasses is indistinct but I took to mean shouting, huffing or flicking the V’s. I understand this a great deal. I don’t know how many times I have howled and raved in the driver’s seat of my car while doddering behind some poor old grandmother who can barely see over the wheel driving 20 miles an hour on the motorway and dragging a length of fence and a dead sheep behind her. But as we are British of course we would rather stew in private than actually confront the other road user about their conduct. The French on the other hand, showed a different tack with 60% of drivers admitting they had acted aggressively to other road users. The reasonable Belgians were revealed to be the most laid-back of drivers in the EU, with only a 55% annoyance ratio.
Of course all this really means is that if you intend to go abroad this summer exercise the proper care and discretion when dealing with traffic, and always expect the unexpected. Foreign drivers will be prepared for some little Italian taxi drivers making an emergency stop and reversing down the left hand lane while looking over his hairy shoulders and swearing, but perhaps you will not. Statistics indicate that UK drivers are three times as likely to be involved in a fatal accident in Spain or Portugal than at home. UK drivers are to be advised to pay attention, drive carefully and bottle up their rage for release at a later date, probably in the form of a nervous breakdown or a massive coronary. Oh well, you can’t win them all.