I am getting to know this country.
I was born in Malaysia and I thought I knew the land. I was wrong. I was a wee pup with the perspective of a myopic. It was in America that I grew up: I learned to whistle Dixie in the South and then the Yankees had a go at me. Life has a way of describing a full circle—is it fate?—and more than two decades later, this is what I see on the roads of Malaysia up and down the Western corridor, from the Klang Valley to Penang Island and back.
On the roads of Malaysia there is never much tailgating going on. No, not even in rush hour traffic. To tailgate is to drive dangerously close to the car in front of you. Do you see? A typical Malaysian driver has no use for this expression for he prefers to leave plenty of room between his car and the car in front. He would step on the brake way ahead of time; he does not favour hard braking. It is the sign of a careful driver.
And to make an exaggerated evasive maneuver to avoid slow- and non-moving objects—pedestrians, bicycles, scooter motorcycles, stray dogs, stalled vehicles, potholes, and so on—is the sign of a very cautious driver. A typical Malaysian driver would swerve in a wide arc, far wider than necessary, in an effort to evade such obstacles.
The commendable cautiousness of Malaysian drivers does not stop there. A whole new level unheard of in Western countries has been reached. Imagine coming up to a busy junction in Malaysia with only a stop sign: there is a car in front of you and you can only turn left (there is no right turn). Likely than not the car in front of you would flash not the left indicator lights, but the right indicator lights to turn left.In this situation there is a chance that the cross-traffic vehicles might not notice the left-turn lights clearly, so to be absolutely sure a typical Malaysian driver would instead flash the right-turn lights to turn left. Either that or the driver was already thinking a step ahead, forecasting his desire to merge into the right lane upon turning. There lies a deep, almost subconscious level of reasoning and overthinking—evidence that Malaysian drivers are inherently very careful on the road.
Is Careful Driving Equivalent to Safe Driving?
In the case of Malaysia, the answer is a resounding yes! Excluding motorcycle-related accidents, road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012 in Malaysia is 9.3, a figure rivaling those of developed countries such as South Korea (9.6) and the United States (9.1)*. Manipulated statistics are often not worth the paper they are printed on (or the liquid crystal they are displayed with), but what we have here, as long as the reader eschews motorcycles, is a reassuring testament of road safety in Malaysia.
Although the carefulness of Malaysian drivers must have contributed to road safety, there are times when being too careful is meretricious, or even undesirable. For one, the aforementioned habit of Malaysian drivers to manoeuvre overly wide unnecessarily increases the risk of getting broadsided. It is much safer to just clear an obstacle than to swerve theatrically around it. For another, a typical Malaysian driver can be too careful in lane changes. The ideal way to change lane is with a fast and decisive move that would require minimal braking on the part of the adjacent vehicles. In contrast, an overly careful, ponderous, slow lane change often results in too many vehicles nearby having to apply the brakes, a delicious recipe for accidents.
Human nature is seldom black and white, especially not in a place as colourful as Malaysia. Not all Malaysian drivers are saints, but for every notorious tailgater in Malaysia you will find about ten scores of the same in the state of New Jersey in America (true story). For every shortcut cheater in Malaysia you will probably find more than a dozen in Southern California. Rude drivers can be found here, but to put it in perspective, nearly all drivers are rude in New York City. Drunk drivers can also be found here, but the fact is, every year they yielded a tiny fraction of the 10,000 drunk-driving related deaths in America.
Speed demons exist in Malaysia just like they do the world over, except around here they are not to be found in lorries, trucks, and tractor trailers. On any given hour of the day heavy trucks can be found carefully and safely crawling along the slow lanes of Malaysian highways. Some people think they crawl due to undersized engines and perpetual overloading, while others claimed that Malaysia is the birthplace of truck tai chi.
A discourse on the driving habits of a nation is incomplete without touching on parking. There is not much to cover. As the saying goes, “If there’s nothing good to say, say nothing.” Let’s just say that Malaysian drivers are highly disinclined to walking more than a few steps to their final destinations. As a result, ample parking spaces are often available so long as one is willing to travel a bit on foot. Good news! for those citizens of world metropoles who are accustomed to walking.
Thus I have walked and I have driven—I am getting to know this country.
It is a fascinating nation. Malaysian drivers, however, are rather boring because they drive carefully and safely. I have often heard claims to the contrary, that Malaysian roads are hazardous. I suspect they were mere attempts to make the country sound even more fascinating. Danger has a way of exceeding the excitement of safety. Just stay away from motorcycles, and most stories of dangerous roads in Malaysia are fain to become as fascinating and real as the legend of Mahsuri.
* 2014 Road Safety Annual Report published by IRTAD (International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group)
- Rules and Regulations on Driving in Malaysia
- 5 Things You Should Know About Driving in Malaysia
- Road Fatalities and Dangerous Driving in Malaysia