Tips on driving a car in Malaysia
1st Jan 2009 New Seat Belt Law – PLEASE READ!
It doesn’t take long to learn that there are a lot of motorcycles on the roads of Malaysia and while this is not uncommon in Asia it’s much more unusual in western countries so it’s worth learning a few things about them. My first four tips concern getting used to some practices of motorcyclists.
1. The Speeding Motorcyclist. If one forgets how young people think they cannot die it is easy to believe some motorcyclists have a death wish. Certainly there are rather a large number of motorcyclists who seem unaware and/or unconcerned about the very high death rate among motorcyclists in this country – more than half the road deaths are motorcyclists. He (they are usually young and male) will pass your car on either side, often very close with the small motorbike engine screaming at maximum revs, and then swerve in front of you to change lanes, exit or just test his driving skills. This can be quite unsettling (for which read “bloody annoying”) but sounding your horn and screaming abuse will be wasted as he will be long gone and anyway the wind in his ears will prevent him hearing anything.
2. The Motorcyclist at traffic lights. At traffic lights when you just miss the green light and console yourself that you are first in line for a quick get away when they turn green, don’t expect it to happen. It is very likely your car will soon be surrounded by a large number of motorcyclists all revving their engines for a grand prix getaway while some of the less powerful bikes, often overloaded with passengers struggle to get moving again often right in front of you. All of which means you will need to expend some effort to avoid hitting any of them even though the temptation may be to leave your hand on the horn and drive straight through them.
3. The Motorcyclists Rear Light. All motorcyclists in Malaysia are required to drive with their lights on all the time. While most will quickly discover if their front light does not work the rear one can often be out for a while. It is necessary to bear this in mind when driving at night or other times when there is poor visibility.
4. Motorcyclists, Rain and Bridges. As most new arrivals quickly learn the rain in Malaysia can be extremely heavy and it only takes a few seconds to get very wet. Motorcyclists are particularly vulnerable and the practice in Malaysia is to shelter under the nearest bridge. Obviously this can add up to quite a few motorbikes under one bridge and it is very common to find the slow lane full of parked motorbikes when you enter a tunnel or go under a bridge. If the rain is very heavy you may only see them at the last minute with potentially disastrous consequences. The rule is try not to enter a tunnel or bridge in the slow lane unless you can clearly see there are no bikes waiting there.
5. Red Traffic Lights Don’t Always Mean “Stop”. If the traffic lights have just changed many cars will carry on through them. This practice has decreased somewhat since cameras were installed at many lights in KL but nevertheless it still happens so be careful if you are approaching a light that has just gone green. Motorcyclists will often go through any red traffic light so it’s worth bearing that in mind if you are travelling rapidly towards a traffic light that has just turned green.
6. The Slow Lane is Not For Cars. Very few Malaysian drivers are willing to drive in the “slow” left hand lane on a three lane road. Most will drive happily in the middle or even the fast lane. While it has been explained to me that this is because of motorcyclists the reality is I have often seen completely empty inside lanes which had no traffic of any kind as far as the eye could see. This of course encourages many drivers to overtake on the inside lanes and this is quite a common practice in Malaysia.
7. The Aging Trucks. There are still some very old trucks (lorries) on the road. In the last few years many larger more powerful trucks have been introduced onto the Malaysian roads but there are still plenty of the older ones around. You can recognise them as they often have either half a door or no door at all. These lorries usually travel slowly and going up a hill they travel so slowly the casual observer would be justified in thinking they have actually stopped so exercise caution when coming up behind a truck on a hill – the gap may close much more quickly than you expect. Trucks will sometimes break down and there will be no warning sign behind the truck such as a hazard sign or flashing lights. At night they may have no lights on particularly if the engine has packed up. One expatriate wife was killed when she drove into the back of one of these stalled trucks.
8. Joining The Major Road. One of the most common practices in Malaysia is not to pause when coming out of a side road. It would be fair to say that in Malaysia many drivers ask themselves only one question – can that driver stop his car before hitting me if I don’t stop and pull out in front of him. If the answer is “Yes” then many will keep going. So do not be surprised when a car suddenly approaches a side street in front of you and does not even pause before pulling out in front of your car.
9. The Highway – Long Distance Buses. Long distance buses pose another problem. The upgrading of most bus fleets has substantially reduced the belching black fumes they used to emit but the drivers sometimes seem to be just as bad. Some still drive as though their size justifies any action they take. Sadly this country experiences quite a regular number of terrible bus accidents which suggests that more work needs to be done on either the quality of the buses or the drivers or both. It is not at all uncommon for buses to decide to overtake when they choose without consideration for you approaching rapidly in the fast lane. Of course it’s not just buses that do this but they can be more intimidating.
10. The Highway – Driving in the Fast Lane. Which is the fast lane? The answer of course is the right lane but some drivers, once they have settled into it, will not leave it and when you come up behind them, no end of horn blowing or flashing lights will move them. You will then have to decide whether to break the law and pass them on the inside or wait patiently behind them. Even those that know they should move back to the slow lane after overtaking will rarely move back until they have passed every vehicle in their field of vision. This can be rather frustrating but again horn blowing and flashing lights will rarely encourage them to move back until their mission is accomplished.
11. Passing on the Inside. It is not uncommon for some drivers on motorways who confront the above two practices, to not even attempt to get the vehicle in front to move out of the fast lane. They will just pass on the inside without indicating their presence at all so if you find that you are returning to the slow lane a little later than you should have done always check the inside lane or you may end up being hit. This rule is equally important on other roads and especially when turning left as motorbikes can often appear from nowhere in your inside lane.
12. Blinking Hazard Lights Doesn’t Mean I’ve Stopped. In many counties putting on all four blinking lights indicates that you have stopped your car. In Malaysia it is quite common for drivers to do this when they drive slowly in heavy rain, apparently at one time the government suggested this. Some motorists will also put on their hazard lights in preference to side lights when they enter a tunnel.
13. Two Laws that May be Different from Your Own Country. In many countries you can use a hand phone while driving. In Malaysia this is against the law and only hand-free kits are permitted. The other law which is different from some countries (like the United States) is that you are not permitted to turn (left) at a red light.
14. Drive Around the City During Major Festive Holidays. One time when it is wise to stay off the highways is during Hari Raya and Chinese New Year when hundreds of thousands of Malaysians “balik kampong” meaning return to the village. Although some fly and many take the train, the roads also fill up. Those that see these holidays as a chance to discover the countryside may find the speed of progress gives them more time than they wish to examine the landscape. This is a good time to drive around the city for some sightseeing and photography because you should find the city streets pleasantly deserted.
IMPORTANT: In recent years, there have been an increase in cases of car mugging, in order to prevent this from happening to you, do take the following precautions.
1. Don’t stop if a passing motorist tells you that something is wrong with your vehicle or if someone bumps you from behind. Pull into the nearest service station or well-lit public area. Call the police.
2. At stoplights, leave plenty of room between your vehicle and the one in front of you in case you must pull away quickly. Always keep doors locked and windows rolled up when driving or when parked. Keep valuables in the trunk or in the locked glove compartment.
3. Learn emergency vehicles’ signals. Police lights are red and blue. Do not stop for flashing white headlights alone. Do not resist in the rare event that a stranger demands your valuables. Your well-being is more important than your belongings.
4. Don’t pick up hitchhikers under any circumstances. Always be aware of the pedestrian traffic around your vehicle.
5. Always park in a well-lit area. Have car keys in hand and check in and around the car before entering.
6. Don’t take shortcuts to save time or exit expressways prematurely to save tolls. Tolls are a nominal charge, change is available at many booths, and your safety is most important.
7. If your car malfunctions on a major thoroughfare, lock the doors, turn on the hazard lights and wait for the police to arrive. If someone offers help, have them call the police.