Note to automobile companies

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Dec 27, 2005

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Saturday, December 17, 2005

Something that I have noticed in both Thailand and Indonesia is drivers' fondness for honking the horn. Not in anger or frustration like Americans are familiar with. And not even for the same reasons in each country, but just as frequently in both. It is a short staccato beeping, used as a heads-up to others, or a sign of respect (see below).

The drivers spend an inordinate amount of time with their hand on the horn, which is that much time they can't spend using that hand to guide (and I use that term loosely) their autos and motorbikes along the dangerous tracks they follow. If the cars were equipped with finger-close horn buttons, they could accomplish both tasks at the same time.

My stay in Bangkok included a lot of honking, but at the time I was so overwhelmed by the traffic conditions that honking was the least of my observations. No, I started noticing it during the long hours driving on our Thai cross-country trek. At first I thought it was a warning to others about our driver's somewhat aggressive style. It would only be sensible, not to mention polite, to warn oncoming vehicles and unprotected pedestrians of our imminent approach. That approach often included passing in the opposing traffic lane on a blind curve, which to my mind is bordering on suicide. I found that sleeping was the best way to manage the induced stress level.

But when the horn toots continued on isolated roads, or while climbing a straight mountain road, I realized it was something else at issue. Well, turns out that a devout Buddhist doesn't pass a shrine without respectful acknowledgment. From the vantage point of a speeding car that translates into a beep on the horn. Mind you, Thailand is strewn with said shrines in such abundance that the beeping is every few minutes in some places.

Then, of course, there is the more customary warning honk, really more of a heads-up to others, which Thailand shares with Indonesia (and a lot of other cultures). This form is a slightly longer, and sometimes repeated, beep. It is necessary because drivers in these places are not as disciplined in adhering to the rules of the road as Americans are used to. So, for example, driving a motorcycle along the shoulder against traffic is a common phenomenon. Day or night. Or straddling two lanes, usually because some more traditional (read slow and erratic) mode of transport is taking up the edge of the road.

The more alert, or considerate, drivers will use this signal as a preventative measure when they think a motorcycle might not notice it is about to be passed in the same lane, or when approaching a driveway, from which various vehicles and objects may issue without warning. I should note that the couple times I have been driven by police officers, they probably used the horn the most. I guess that attests to the techniques' efficacy.

But I have to wonder how effective it all is. I mean, if you have spent your life hearing these sounds, mightn't you just filter them out, rendering the whole effect useless? Oh well, I suppose the highway carnage would be even worse without it.

-- written in the early evening of a rainy day while sipping a lime juice, sitting along a beach outside Sengigi, Lombok, gazing out across the ocean at Gunung Agung, Bali's towering volcano, and listening to a mixture of Springsteen and the evening call to prayers.
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