Monday, March 22, 2010

Driving Under the Assumption

In the States, one of the most dangerous scenarios in life involves a person who is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I have no doubt that DUIs occur just as frequently in Sri Lanka, but my main concern on the drive from the airport to Hikkaduwa Beach had nothing to do with mind altering substances. Rather, the heightened sense of fear and the tightening in my chest was the direct result of witnessing what I have dubbed "Driving Under the Assumption" or DUA. What is DUA, you say? Please allow me to explain by offering you a comparable example: "The Lane Change".

Changing lanes in Texas is simple for the most part. You check your mirrors, turn on your blinker, and slowly veer in the direction that you need to go until you are in your desired lane. In Sri Lanka, and most of the developing World for that matter, the lanes that dot the highways are really just seen as a mere "suggestion" or perhaps a highly subjective "interpretation" drawn on the road by some non-authoritative artist. There is only one true right-of-way for traffic and that is the desired direction of travel for each individual driver. Rear-view mirrors are purely aesthetic features that allow their owners to check their hair and teeth. Blinkers are utilized as a warning system that does not ask for permission, but rather makes a direct declaration of the inevitable. Horns are diverse and used often. The frequency of the honking typically depends on the amount of imminent danger at hand or the current mood of the driver. Therefore, as you can see, there really is no protocol when it comes to changing lanes in Sri Lanka, so the drivers just simply "assume" that the lane is open. This poses a problem on many levels, but perhaps the most troubling aspect lies in the ever so harrowing lane change that occurs on roads with only two lanes (i.e. 98% of the roads in Asia). For some reason, there is absolutely no fear of what I like to call "on-coming traffic". When playing "chicken" in Sri Lanka, there is a hierarchy of automobiles that is roughly based on sheer size and the level of driver insanity. Buses use a deadly combination of both to secure the role as "king of the road" as they carelessly slash around streets on suicide missions. Depending on your love of literature and your appreciation of analogies, I can say that the buses and drivers resemble either the "Knight Bus" from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or "Lenny" from Of Mice and Men or both (without the magical ability to avoid crashes or the genuine love of pets).

So as a visitor, you just sit in the back seat, stare at the seat belt dangling next to your head that NEVER works, and hold on tight as your driver passes car after car. There is someone coming directly towards you almost 75% of the time, which provides the uneasy tourist with a wreck-free survival rate of only 25%. Not very good odds by any means, but apparently the good citizens of Sri Lanka are compulsive gamblers when they get behind the wheel. The funny thing is that even though a large number of the population drives like certifiable maniacs, people act shocked and go absolutely BONKERS when they are actually involved in a wreck.

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