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Slaughter on the Streets

motorbike wreck

This is not my photo, nor is it a picture of what I saw last night. It was taken in Vientiane, and it is typical of an accident scene here.

Riding my motorbike back to The Farm last night, I came across two traffic accidents. The first one was horrendous–two covered bodies lay in the street down the road from Wat Si Muang, near a traffic light, though the accident occurred away from the light. There was a very large police presence and dozens of gawking onlookers. I noticed the bodies as I rode slowly through the crowd, but I didn’t see what kind of vehicles were involved. Perhaps they had already been removed or maybe the bodies were those of pedestrians. The traffic light ahead was red, so I continued to ride slowly toward it. All of a sudden, a teen-aged boy on his motorbike, who I had seen as one of the gawkers, raced past me and ran through the red light.

That’s just insanely stupid, especially after the scene he had just witnessed. But, it’s a normal occurrence here; a huge number of motorbike riders routinely ignore all traffic laws. They run through red lights and stop signs, they operate their bikes without headlights, they don’t wear helmets, they exceed the speed limit, and when they turn onto a larger road from a side street, they rarely look to see if another vehicle is approaching. They also drive drunk. Put ’em together–teen boys, booze and motorbikes–what could possibly go wrong?

Another law that people ignore is riding on the wrong side of the road. This was the most difficult abuse for me to get used to. They do this because they’re too impatient to wait for traffic to clear so that they can cross into their proper driving lane. So, they ride along the side of the road, against traffic, peering back over their shoulders to see if there is any oncoming traffic behind them, and when the proper lane is clear, they’ll cut over to that side of the road. This can be terrible at night, when a speeding biker wearing black clothing and having no headlight comes at you all of a sudden out of nowhere, forcing you to swerve out of his or her path. This has happened to me on more than one occasion.

They do this as if they had special permission to turn your lane into their own legal avenue to get to the proper side of the road. At first I used to yell at them and swear and honk my horn, to let off steam. Everybody, and I mean everybody, does it, including foreigners. I’m one of the very, very few riders who will wait until traffic clears before I cross into my proper driving lane. Because of the relatively huge number of cars that the new middle class is buying, Vientiane is totally unprepared to handle all the traffic, so there is very little legal parking. People park their cars on the road, effectively cutting one of the driving lanes in half. It’s when motorbike riders going the wrong way come around one or more of these parked cars that it gets really dangerous, especially if there is heavy traffic next to you in the other driving lane. What do you do–swerve into the other lane and hope the drivers notice you and give way, hope that the other motorbike rider will use a little common sense (usually in short supply) or do you veer off to the right side of the road toward the parked car? I’ve usually been able to (cautiously) get into the other driving lane. It’s a scary proposition, just one of the many frightening things about riding a motorbike in Laos.

I don’t mean to single out motorbike riders, because drivers of other vehicles disobey the traffic laws and drive drunk, also. They, too, drive down the wrong side of the road, speed and generally drive like idiots. I would estimate, roughly, that 80 percent of motorbike riders and at least half the drivers of other vehicles would not pass a driver’s exam. Most drivers here, I’ve heard, don’t even have a driver’s license. Not surprising.

Anyway, I rode out of Vientiane toward The Farm. Just past the new U.S. Embassy there is a final traffic light. As I approached it, two ambulances raced screaming from the other direction and turned right at the light, heading toward a hospital along that particular road. I thought that there might be another accident further along. Sure enough, as I neared my turnoff, there was another large crowd of gawkers and police surrounding a scene that included a tuk-tuk that had a severely smashed-in front end. I didn’t see another vehicle, so again I don’t know that a motorbike was involved. I kind of doubt that there was, due to the magnitude of damage to the tuk-tuk. I continued on, hyper aware and extremely cautious.

It seems like every couple of weeks there is an article or letter in the Vientiane Times deploring the carnage on the roads of Laos and demanding that something be done about it. The authorities repeatedly say that they are going to crack down on those who drive drunk, speed and flout other traffic laws. However, nobody appears to be doing anything to change the situation. And the slaughter continues.

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