Sunday, May 31, 2009

STI: No smooth ride

May 31, 2009


No smooth ride

By Mark Featherstone 


After 2-1/2 years of taking public transport to and from the Nanyang Technological University campus, I broke down last December and bought a car. I wasn't looking forward to it. I couldn't see myself driving on the left side of the road and living to tell about it.


Surprisingly, it really wasn't that hard. I would like to think that this means that I am an excellent driver and am not - contrary to all indications - a closet dyslexic. But it may simply be that my driving is so bad, it just doesn't matter where on the road I'm supposed to be.


But the good thing about driving in Singapore is that no one will ever notice. My fellow motorists are just as bad.


My most ironic driving experience in Singapore took place in Buona Vista North, not far from Biopolis. A white van coming towards me in the opposite lane performed an illegal, James-Bond-like U-turn into my lane right in front of me, forcing me to slam on my brakes and review my last 52 years of life.


With my right eye plastered against the windshield, I could easily read the exhortation printed on the looming back of the van: 'Drive green. Drive safe.' I wasn't safe, but I was definitely green. I wonder if that counts as an eco-friendly driving experience.


That was unusual. There is another threat to my well-being that occurs regularly: lane changing. You're supposed to signal before you change lanes, right? And the driver behind you in the next lane, upon seeing your courteous flashing light, is supposed to be equally courteous and allow you to merge into traffic ahead of him.


I haven't made a scientific study of this, but my impression is that signalling to change lanes will instead induce the driver behind you to accelerate, thereby squeezing you out and blocking your lane change. I'd say this happens to me five times out of 10. Who knows what quivering maniacal brain cell provokes a driver to do this. Maybe it's the ugly face of kiasuism once again. The driver cannot bear to 'lose' the space ahead of him and come in second, or so it seems to him.


But even if most of us car drivers should have our licences revoked, we are no match for Singapore's motorcyclists. Maybe because my nose was usually in a newspaper in the blackened depths of a taxi, I never really paid much attention to motorcyclists. Now, having experienced the driving habits of thousands of them, I have been given a startling insight into the psychology of a broad swathe of this country's society.


Here's the scoop: While I can comfortably surmise that many Singaporeans would prefer to postpone their deaths as long as possible, I can tell you that motorcyclists in this country are a breed apart. They have a deep, festering, devilish death wish. How else can you explain their riding habits?


For example, I am regularly forced to be an unhappy participant in the following scenario: Imagine that I am driving down the middle lane on the PIE at 80 to 100 kmh. There is a car on my left and a car on my right. And what happens now? On both my left and right, between my car and the cars on either side, I am passed by motorcyclists.


Let me repeat that: I am passed - passed! - on both sides! The space between my car and the cars around me is only slightly wider than the dashed line between lanes. The bikers have about 10cm between their handlebars and the cars that flank them.


Does this perturb them? Do they think twice? Do they worry that a driver might veer by a few centimetres as they pass, perhaps startled by the bikers themselves? If we but graze each other, my car will suffer a little smudge that I can remove with a bit of spit and my shirtsleeve. But the biker will be reduced to a thin red slick, long enough to be seen from outer space.


I guess human beings have a need for some form of Russian roulette. For some, it's smoking. For others, it's motorbikes. For me, it's trying to change lanes on a Singapore expressway - without hitting a motorcyclist.


Mark Featherstone is a professor at the School of Biological Sciences at Nanyang Technological University. He has lived in Singapore for almost three years. Be careful. He's on the road.

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