Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reflections on Driving in Thailand by Elder Sowards

I got my Thai driver's license on Tuesday and drove to Ayutthaya on Saturday and back to Bangkok on Sunday.  This was not as simple as it sounds. Driving in Thailand is a challenge. 
Elder Sowards' first time driving in Thailand

I never drove as a young missionary or on our visits in later years.
You must drive on the left side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right.
If that were the only difference, there would be no problem. But the Thais drive wild.

Driving is not a rule of right of way, but a rule of who got their vehicle into the space first.  Cars dart in and out of driving lanes, drive on the shoulder, straddle lanes, anywhere there is space or looks as space. Two lanes can become 4 lanes in seconds.

 Then there are the motorcycles. For every car on the road there are at least 10 motorcycles. These are not big Harley's but small scooters and bikes. Motorbike drivers feel they own all space and drive on the road- by, between and around cars, on the sidewalk, in the gutter, and anywhere else they can get by. One must constantly watch out for motorcycles darting around. 

The roads are not very wide and streets are very crowded. Add to that, cars & trucks stopping anywhere at any time to drop off or pick people or things.  Stopping may back up traffic for a long period. There are few stop lights, and if you need to return on a street you will mostly have to do a U-turn with much traffic coming the other way.  

This is why I never planned to drive on our mission; I am not crazy – well maybe not.

There are some positives about Thai drivers. No one wants to hit anyone else, so if you are in the space/lane first, they will usually slow/stop to allow you through. To make a right hand turn on a busystreet (like a left hand turn across traffic in the States) means edging out and hoping cars will stop/slow to allow you in. 

For all the driving craziness there are not a lot of accidents. People drive flexibly to deal with the situation not thinking who has the right of way by law. One blessing and curse of driving on the streets in Bangkok is that there are so many cars everyone moves slowly--so less chance of major damage if an accident happens. The down side is one may sit at a traffic light for 10 minutes or longer, barely moving forward. No one seems to mind or get angry. It is just their accepted way of life. 

There are freeways and toll ways and these have less traffic but people drive at higher speeds and still shift lanes and cut you off.

Getting the driver's license was easy because I still have my USA one. Had it expired, I would have had to take tests. The only test they gave me was to distinguish between red, yellow and green lights and to know with which light stomp on the gas to hit the brake.

Driving was very stressful for me but Joan seemed to handle it well and as my navigator.  We drove the mission van, which is a Toyota with 4 rows of seats--what our children call a MobyDick van. The size is nice for protection but bulky to drive. Joan would remind me a few times that I was too close to the left side of the road. 

One other irritant is that the turn signal is on the right side of the steering column. Even with the steering wheel being on the right side it seems to my engineering mind that most people are right handed and would prefer to use the left hand to move the turn signal. The only reason I can think to put it on the right side is because they used to use the right hand to hand-signal turns. Regardless of what I want it is on the right side and I am used to it being on the left. Joan started counting haw many times I turned on the wipers when trying to signal. I think I hit 18 on Sat. and less on Sunday. We laughed a lot about it. (Many Thai drivers don't signal anyway, especially when changing lanes.)

We made it to and from Ayutthaya. When we finally arrived home in Bangkok, I felt like doing a Toyota jump/cheer. I am sure the 4 or 6 angels that protected us felt just as relieved.

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