It’s fun to complain about how other people drive. It’s so cultural. People in foreign countries drive on the wrong side of the street. They have no manners or respect for traffic laws. When we are caught in other people’s traffic, we’re shocked by the realization that we all drive to different laws, both legally and socially. GDP and GNP give us growth in numbers, but traffic style shows us how we like to move forward.
The US, founded on unalienable rights, makes jaywalking illegal. When I was a rebellious teenager, I was arrested for crossing the street, though empty, at the wrong place. I was fined and almost sent to jaywalking correctional school. There are laws about seatbelts, baby seats, use of mobile phones and helmets for bicyclists. The law is something the country is built on. The law takes the place of the king and the father, but laws go both ways. You can either seek recourse or be convicted by them.
In contrast, in some countries, the purpose of driving is not to follow laws, but to have fun. We can look to computer games for proof that speed limits don’t make the game fun. On one of the most frightening bus trips I’d ever had, I was confused if the driver delighted in passing on curves because he was crazy or was skilled. Having read my mind, the driver’s assistant gleefully declared upon reaching safe ground, “You’re such a good driver!” Every year during Songkran, road carnage statistics are read like the force of a typhoon; the natural fallout from drunken drinking, reckless abandonment and the fun of living for the moment.
China 2013 is nothing like China 2003 so I look back nostalgically to the days of wobbly bicycles slowly crashing into each other. After witnessing so many collisions, I could conclude that swerving into other people’s path was the major cause. Usually, we’re warned to watch our back, but apparently other people’s paths were not the concern. Everyone was moving forward and even with 5,000 years of history, nobody was looking back.
I feel that Hanoi traffic is often misinterpreted. The din is overwhelming, but it’s not a sport to hit people jaywalking. I haven’t tested this myself, but I’m convinced that I could walk across any street blindfolded without getting hit. The trick is to move forward at a predictable pace. Freeze, jump or scream and then you’re likely to get hit. Moving forward in mass is possible as long as you’re predictable.
My current favorite is Phnom Penh traffic. Even when traffic gets stalled, the feeling is like jogging at a stoplight. By pure will, everything keeps moving forward and there is tremendous mutual consent for everyone to do anything they want for the common goal of moving forward. It all works without stoplights and for that matter, any signs of traffic rules. In pragmatic chaos, traffic rules are overruled.
Finally, there is the delight of Vientiane. Lao people are polite and social and avoid using horns. There is the big-hearted acceptance and freedom to triple-park and stop for a bowl of noodles. Nobody is in a rush, so beginner drivers are allowed to move at the safe pace of a pedestrian. Beautiful cars represent a modern, progressive city, so the more white cars, the more beautiful it all is. After all, we’re all going where we want to go and must go in our own preferred style.