Driving in Indonesia vs California

In California, I can drive everyday, push the speed limits, go on road trips. In Indonesia, I stand no chance.

So, before the last vacation I went with some confidence that I would now be able to drive myself around. That would be nice, because it would be more comfortable than motorcycles (especially since we have a toddler). I thought so, because I’m more than comfortable driving in California on a regular basis – it is my main mode of transport. I’ve even driven hundreds of miles/kilometers on a single day without any problem.

I went to Indonesia with this expectation and the result: No, there’s no chance I can confidently drive in Indonesia in the near future.

Why is driving in Indonesia so different? After all, the law of physics, the controls of a vehicle and the basic principles of traffic are the same, right? Maybe for some of you who drive in Indonesia, the answer is kind of obvious, but I thought a little bit about why the driving skills that I have during almost 2 years driving regularly in Califoria isn’t so useful in the face of Indonesian urban traffic. I think one of the reason is because the rules are very different. I don’t mean that de jure Indonesia have dramatically different traffic laws. It’s that in reality, the convention on the road are really different.

65 mph (105 km/h) is the common speed limit for freeways in California, and it is very common for people to drive about 15% faster than this. When I told this to people in Indonesia, they seem surprised that I drive to that kind of speed. But in reality, despite being much faster, this is way easier and way less dangerous than a typical Indonesian traffic.

For example, in California once you’re on the road what you do is really simple. You stay on your lane carefully, try to follow the same speed as traffic, and be careful when you do something different like changing your lane, making a turn, slowing down and exiting/entering a road. Simple, right? The rule applies no matter where you are, when you’re 120+ km/h on the freeway, driving slowly on city streets, or  when you’re stuck on a traffic jam.

If you do this in Indonesia, there’s a lot of things that will make your drive difficult and ineffective. For one, there are tons of motorcycles that don’t follow the marked lanes or go with the same speed as traffic. There are vehicles that stop in the middle of traffic for whatever reasons, and if you’re trailing him it’s foolish to “stay on the lane carefully”. Also, a lot of vehicles split lanes, so it’s not so outrageous if you do so.

Another example is intersections. In California it’s very orderly. Depending on  the intersection, and signs/lights involved, the rules about who goes first is very clear, and for the most parts people abide by these rules. For example, simple rules like people entering a road must yield to existing traffic. In Indonesia, forget about those rules. You’ll never get through the intersection if you play nice in a dense traffic. What matters is how clever and how confident you are in positioning your car.

There are other factors, like narrower roads, prevalence of manual transmission car (in California I drive auto), and all these made me eventually abandon the idea of driving. We got around by motorcycles, or being driven by parents/friends or hiring drivers.

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Driving in Indonesia vs California

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