Don’t Take Pedestrian Crossings Literally in Palembang: You may get killed.
One of the things that stands out to me about Palembang, and Indonesia in general, is a lack of respect for road rules. Crossing the street is actually life or death. At least it seems that way to a foreign eye; Indonesians manage to scamper across intact in most cases, they seem to be surviving just fine; there are a lot of them. But then again I’m not an emergency room doctor. And I have seen a fair few accidents in my three years here, though normally involving cars and motorbikes. So why do drivers here completely ignore pedestrian crossings? Are they just there for decoration?
The obvious purpose of a pedestrian crossing is so that people may cross they road safely without being hit by a car or motorbike. But there are deeper meanings behind pedestrian crossings. A pedestrian crossing implicitly states that people’s lives are valued and that it is a civic duty for those dominant forms of road occupancy to yield to more marginalised forms of road occupancy, so, a pedestrian crossing represents an ethical obligation. People are empowered when they drive a bike or car because they are driving a weapon. But that power is conditional on trust and must yield at particular points on the road so that pedestrians may cross safely. This act of submission shows the type of relationships we have with others in our communities, that we each have an ethical obligation to another whether in positions of power or not. While pedestrian crossings are an almost sacred feature of civic duty in Australia, I have not once seen a car or bike stop at a pedestrian crossing in Indonesia.
If someone is hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing in Australia, not only will it make the newspaper, but the event will be held up as a morally reprehensible act, something akin to setting fire to a nursing home or poisoning the school lunches of small children. There is so much trust involved in a procedure where someone expects to be granted safe passage and puts their faith in drivers to allow them to pass, that to flout that rule is to undermine the entire ethical basis of road usage, indeed, the basic structure of organised society. Is there some sort of terminal civic failure here in Palembang? Are drivers on the road exploiting their power in the face of public safety and does this phenomenon illustrate the more general lack of order in Palembang?
I think it’s safe to say that this issue is certainly tied to a lack of public order and civic cooperation, but unless the hospitals report overwhelmingly large amounts of pedestrian casualties each year, the issue is also a cultural one. Public order and civic cooperation expresses itself in other less obvious ways, and the pedestrian crossing idea never quite caught on in Palembang. People have learnt to get across the road, albeit by the skin of their necks, but without enmity toward drivers who shy away from ploughing into pedestrians and prefer to swing around them. Indonesian people have different ways that they articulate their mutual obligations and civic duties toward one another. Cars and bikes are afforded much respect and space on the roads, above pedestrians and becak drivers, to the point that it is difficult and one could say, life endangering, to cross, but the road is also a public market place where people are granted the patience and space to do business in the two minute gap when the lights go red. Whether it is beggars or sellers, when the light is red, the road belongs to all. Australians would never tolerate people walking in and out of cars at a red light regardless of whether they are just trying to make a buck or they want to get to the other side! You will never see a becak trundling in front of you or a wiry old man carting a bakso stall along the road in Australia. Even cyclists have been trying for years to claim space on the roads, but unless it’s legally implemented, they ride at risk. Only cars and bikes tolerate one another’s company on Australian roads (and pedestrians in the proper spaces allocated). Australians respect the rules in exactly the places where the rules apply. Indonesians respect the rules only insofar as the rules allow them to utilise public space, the rest are unregulated negotiations between road users themselves.
This leads me to my next point whereby drivers are unintimidated by road rules and are quite free to use their discretion to manoeuvre about the road. There is some unspoken rule where police do little to enforce road safety (unless they can get a bribe) and prefer to allow drivers their own discretions to get from A to B. Without law enforcement, the seriousness of road safety rules are not acknowledged and people simply don’t afford them respect because discretion is a normative behaviour in road usage. If the conduct of drivers at pedestrian crossings is never enforced, there will never be general common knowledge of their importance for guaranteeing pedestrian safety, nor common respect for pedestrians on the road. Palembangnese do what they want on the road and they are rarely penalised for it. They disavow the road as a site of civic responsibility and mutual obligation in agreement of the road as a a site of discretion and economic opportunity. Cars however, are empowered, and pedestrians are not.
So pedestrian crossings haven’t really become fashionable as a mutual obligation to ensure common safety, but those pretty stripes look damn good on the tarmac!