Loyal Followers

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Malaysians and traffic laws – an observation


If ever there was a true 1Malaysia thing, a true national identity of sorts, the “balik kampung” exodus during festive seasons must be it. This Malaysian phenomenon is not unlike the more widely observed bird migration phenomenon which may precede a seasonal change in certain part of the world.

Ramadhan is near. That means Aidilfitri is not far away. That in turn means the “balik kampung” exodus will take place soon. Every year, millions of city dwellers, regardless of race and faith, will make their way home via our roads and highways during festive seasons.

And hundreds, if not thousands, will not arrive at their destination. They die on the roads.

Year in and year out the police would launch Ops Whatchamacallit to try to reduce accidents, especially fatal ones, during festive seasons. None has quite registered any meaningful success. The number of accidents, especially fatal ones, remains high.

The figures are staggering. According to a paper by the Highway Planning Unit of Malaysia[i], :-

Traffic accidents in Malaysia have been increasing at the average rate of 9.7% per annum over the last three (3) decades. Compared to the earlier days, total number of road accidents had increased from 24,581 cases in 1974 to 328,264 cases in 2005, reaching more than 135% increase of accident cases over 30 years. The number of fatalities (death within 30 days after accident) also increased but at slower rate compared to total road accident from 2,303 in 1974 to 6,200 in 2005.”

The costs of fatal accidents are obviously high. Apart from the emotional consequence, medical costs, the loss of resources as well as the costs of replacing such resources run in the hundreds of million each year.

It is time that our authorities take a serious look at this burgeoning problem. By that, I do not mean that the authorities should just install more cameras on the highways and roads, issue more summonses, go all out to collect the compounded fines and at the end of it offer “discounts” so that more offenders pay up their compounded fines. Such measures are obviously not working. They are clearly the wrong prescriptions for a misdiagnosed disease.

The fact is, we Malaysians are serial traffic offenders. And regardless of enforcement of the laws, we could not care less. The big question is, why?

I believe the problem is one of culture rather than legal. Allow me to explain.

Culture and cultural practices shape the laws. It is not the other way round. Thus we see the laws in various part of the world being interpreted or implemented according to the changing norms of culture and cultural practices. Italy and Australia, for example, (and a host of other Western countries, such as Canada) are now grappling with the defence of “honour killing” in murder prosecutions. This arises from the influx of Muslims immigrants who are naturalised as citizens. Although honour killing is not yet an acceptable defence, Judges in these countries are now more ready to give considerations to such issue when determining punishment.

In legal jurisprudence, a State or society criminalises an act because they view such act with abhorrence and repulsion. The commission of such act is deemed as unacceptable or repugnant to the values and norms of such State or society. Thus we criminalise rape and murder, for example.

Now, do we, as a society, view double parking, jumping queue, road hogging, driving in emergency lanes, speeding, jumping the red lights, tailgating, driving while using mobile phones (as well as sending text messages), changing lane without giving indication, and various other traffic acts as repugnant to our values and norms and thus, unacceptable? Think about it. The answer is actually no.

In fact in Malaysia, we are expected to do such act. The next time you drive, try stopping at a traffic light when it is about to turn from amber to red when there are cars behind yours. Chances are you would get a honking. When you are stuck in a traffic jam along the highway and your car is blocking the emergency lane, try not to drive in the emergency lane. Chances are, you would also get a honking. Try not to move your car onto the yellow box at a four junction when the light is green. Yes, you would get a honking.

Malaysia is a country where everybody is EXPECTED to break traffic laws. It is not a country where everybody is expected to comply with traffic laws.

Such being our culture and cultural practice, such acts become our values and norm. They are acceptable acts. They are not repugnant to us as a society and as a people. We are not repulsed by such acts. In fact, if somebody complies with traffic laws, we view him or her as a no-good goodie-two-shoes!

That being the order of the day, traffic laws and no amount of exuberance in their enforcement will make any difference whatsoever to solving the problem at hand. Why, even the drivers from the squeaky clean and anti-septic Singapore will break our traffic laws when they drive here. That further proves my point.

Studies have shown that people are able to and in fact will switch cultural mode when circumstances permit or demand such switch. A Malaysian goes to London. Immediately he or she would line up at a sandwich bar or a tube station, switch to some accent which he/she doesn’t even know exist before arriving there, says “thank you” to the cashier and “good morning” to the fish and chips seller. And the minute he/she arrives at KLIA, he/she would immediately switch back to the usual rude, smile-less and thank you-less creature that we are.

That is why the usually compliant Singaporean breaks our traffic laws the minute they cross the bridge in Johor Bharu. And I have even seen some Mat Salleh drivers jumping the red light in Bangsar.

This article would be far too long if I were to suggest solutions. But a really close look at the behavioural patterns of Malaysian and our cultural norms and values would go a long way towards having a correct diagnosis.

[i] http://www.unescap.org/ttdw/roadsafety/Reports2006/Malaysia_RSpaper.pdf