Highway To Hell

Feb 22nd, 2012, in Travel, by

Highway-to-HellTourists living dangerously by adopting local transportation customs while in Bali.

Australian journalist Tom Allard has exploded the myth that foreign tourists visiting Bali need to be most concerned about terrorism, natural disasters, drugs, corrupt officials and police, rabid dogs, Indonesian airline safety, unhygienic tattoo parlours, Kuta cowboys and other items often mentioned in alarmist travel advisories.

In his article, “Accident Waiting To Happen”, Mr Allard shows that the most life-threatening activity for tourists – many of them his compatriots – is another more mundane/common activity: adopting the local habit of driving/riding motorcyles without helmets.

Guys on motorbikes, clothing and helmets optional Tourist family on motorbike in Bali
Don’t tell their mothers…
Gallery of similar photos here

Possibly similar to their evening activities these tourists wouldn’t dare do the same thing in their home country, but somehow feel it is different in Bali. Despite taxis and cars with drivers available for hire everywhere (one time there was even a brawl between drivers from existing taxi companies and a new competitor), tourists often prefer this more dangerous alternative.

Wearing helmets is indeed compulsory in Bali, but not strictly enforced. The Bali police chief has previously been more concerned by foreign tourists not wearing shirts than not wearing helmets, suggesting motorcyclists’ safety is not his top priority.

Mia Webster Funeral NoticeHowever, Mr Allard writes, it becomes a problem when a tourist has an accident. They are disturbingly common in Bali; 150-300 people are treated daily for road-related injuries at the largest public hospital, Sanglah. It was once famous for treating many victims of the Bali bombing, including Australian football player Jason McCartney. These days, foreign patients are rather less heroic; an Australian volunteer working at the hospital described them as “young and drunk and without helmets”.

In September 2011, an Australian lady on her honeymoon died after a collision in Legian.

Mr Allard also warns an accident in Bali can also be disastrous for the careless foreign tourist’s finances. Every few days, one is sent to Singapore, Perth or Darwin for further treatment after a crash. Travel insurance does not cover medical expenses when the claimant broke local road rules in the process, such as not wearing a helmet or having a valid international driver’s licence. Medical evacuation costs $25 000, and intensive care in Singapore is currently costing one British family of a crash victim $20 000 per week; they have had to remortgage their house.

These are all sobering facts, but what about all the Indonesian motorcycle crash victims?

Local actress Valia Rahma, 26, died after a motorcycle crash, also in LegianSome disturbing statisticsThe Jakarta Post:

  • – In 2010, traffic accidents were the third highest cause of death in Bali, despite the count (606 people) excluding victims who died later in hospital, such as Valia Rahma (right). In 2006, traffic accidents were #8. Cancer is now #4, despite the large number of smokers.
  • – Human error was the leading cause of death in traffic accidents. Over half (51%) of the drivers found at fault in traffic accidents did not have a valid driver’s licence, nor did 1 in 4 (26%) of the victims/third parties (i.e. the other innocent drivers involved in the accident) .
  • – 85% of all traffic accidents recorded in Bali in 2010 involved motorcycles.

Nationally, it is no better. The Indonesian road toll for 2010 was 31 234 people, or more than 3 deaths every hour.The Jakarta Post What could Indonesians and their government do to improve road safety awareness in a culturally sensitive way and to reduce the road toll? More generally, who do you think is ultimately responsible for road safety in Bali?

I Made Mangku Pastika
a) Governor of Bali,
I Made Mangku Pastika

Chief of Police, Bali
b) Chief of Police in Bali,
Tengku Ashikin Husein

The travelling public
c) The public

Regarding c), some may argue that some victims bring it upon themselves by their own foolishness, à la Darwin Awards.

Tourist on a motorbike, iPod yes, helmet no Tourist on bike with unstrapped helmet, beer and cigarettes in right hand
In Indonesian, these people “masuk surga cepat” (take a short cut to heaven)

However, victims and third parties surely feel differently.

Based on the statistics above, here is an alternative travel advisory for Indonesia:

Travel Warning Indonesia Reconsider your need to travel
on a motorcycle, especially
when drunk and/or not
wearing a helmet

What do you think can be done to encourage tourists and locals to take road safety more seriously, rather than taking the “Highway to Hell”?

Suggestions, comments and personal experiences welcome.

33 Comments on “Highway To Hell”

  1. pjbali says:

    Just some general comments:

    My daily commute takes me from kerobokan up to what used to be known as dreamland. A few years ago this could take on average of 30 minutes. Its more like an hour now. The roads here are filling up. The statistics quoted here are certainly unsurprising. I would even go as far to say that the 51% accidents caused by human error is probably way on the low side. It would be difficult to change attitudes here but not impossible – after all 10 years or so the taxi drivers would question your masculinity if you choose to wear a seatbelt. Now the driver will wait for you to buckle up before (sometimes anyway) before roaring off.

    Some things that still amaze me:
    Indonesians will still race to get to the lights even if they are red.
    There seems to be little or no awareness of the value of treads on a tire. Have a look at any random motorcycle and you will see what I mean. You would also be surprised at how many degrees of used tires there are in indonesia – both inner and outer.
    Its always surpising how small a space a supra – with family of 4 aboard – can fit into.
    There is an alarming trend in bali of people to run the reds and advance before the green. My only ever accident was stopping for a red light – and being hit from behind by the kid racing to beat the 2 second gap before the green light lit up for oncoming traffic.

    It is possible to get a license at the police station. There is even a tout/agent business set up. Cheaper to do it yourself.

    Anyone planning on using a bike here should plan on keeping the same bike for a week or two. Get the tires changed out and have the brakes checked. Servicing these bikes is not expensive. A good helmet can be bought just about anywhere ( the rental ones always looked greasy to me). The guys that rent some of these bikes out do not always keep them serviced.

    As for what can be done…where to begin?? Attitudes toward driving need to change. I’ve never understood why basic courtesy should take a back seat whenever one gets behind the wheel. For example most people would think me rude if I blew a whistle and tried to force my way to the front of the cashiers queue at the hypermart but this is exactly the sort of behavior exhibited by you average driver outside that same hypermart. Tempted to say write off the current generation and start with basic road safety education in sekolah dasar. The lack of public transporation also needs to be addressed do that there would be some incentive for people not to use their own vehicles. There has been an encouraging trend in push bike sales lately but the school near my house is nigh packed full with scoopys – not a sepeda lipat to be seen.

    Would it be possible/feasible to build some roundabouts in the bypass to prevent the bedlam that occurs every time a bus pariwisata decides it needs to block traffic in both directions to execute a u-turn?

  2. Chris says:

    Dear pjbali,

    Thanks for your comment.

    You wrote:

    I would even go as far to say that the 51% accidents caused by human error is probably way on the low side.

    Sorry if the meaning is not clear, but what I intended the statistic to say was this:

    Drivers who didn’t have a valid driver’s licence caused 51% of all vehicle accidents in Bali attributed to driver error (not something else like e.g. faulty brakes).

    Unfortunately, the source article in The Jakarta Post didn’t say what percentage of crashes were caused by human error, only that it was the #1/most common reason.

  3. pjbali says:

    I think its more the case of me being a lazy reader. Although I wouldn’t want to connect too much between having a license and accident rates since there is no real competance requirement in getting a drivers license here. You can always bypass that step and go straight to the fingerprinting. Maybe that is something that can be improved.

  4. David says:

    I rode a bike in Indonesia for over ten years with no license… not recommending anyone do this, just stating a fact. I wasn’t covered by my employer’s insurance if I had an accident, as mentioned in Chris’s piece, but I just never got around to the license thingy.

    The police, generally I found they’re not THAT bothered about people not having a license, except one time I almost got into trouble for it, he was a young bloke and wanted to impound my bike, but he hesitated for a second and then called over his older colleague; I hadn’t spoken to the young cop at all but to the older one I said straight away in Indonesian “I’ve been riding for x years”. He laughed loudly and said “I thought you couldn’t speak Indonesian!”, and waved me on my way….I’ve nearly always gotten on well with Indonesian policemen…

    I never had an accident, at least not when the bike was moving, I had an almost catastrophic sort of accident in a driveway once when I wasn’t even sitting on the thing, … it’s a long and embarrassing story… and while those people in the photos in Bali look like they’re having fun I really would recommend keeping a helmet on before, during, and after you’re sitting on it….

  5. ET says:

    Bali is overpopulated and its transportation infrastructure is not up to the boom in tourism and pendatang from other islands. The roads have become better but the improvement is superficial and shortlived. After a year or so the potholes appear again to stay there for an indefinite time.

    Indonesians lack discipline and this attitude becomes contagious to many tourists. Hence wearing a helmet and appropriate gear is more a matter of voluntarism rather than enforcement.

    Public transportation is a mishmash of ramshackle bemos and a few bus services between kabupaten capitals. Hence the proliferation of motorcycles and private taxis, together with pariwisata behemoths clogging the roads, enticing intrepid drivers to reckless manoevering in order to escape the omnipresent traffic jams. The bypass, especially near the Kuta roundabout and its connection to the airport and Nusa Dua can only be described as hellish. Denpasar has become a gas chamber

    A reliable and sufficient public transportation system for long and middle-long distances, electric vehicles and the promotion of bycicle riding in cities and villages would be highly recommended. Raising the kegengsian factor of bycicles with appropriate and fashionable clothing and accessories could certainly be helpful. Especially the Balinese are susceptible to this kind of imponderables

  6. ET says:

    I almost forgot to mention the infamous ‘Bali kiss’, the result of your leg accidently touching the exhaust pipe of a newly arrived motorbike in an overfull parking lot. My legs – and those of most locals – show several of these burn marks, the bodily proof of my extensive roaming in the Island of the Gods.

  7. ET says:

    Come to think of it. A new kind of bicycle for city slickers should be introduced on the Balinese market under the brand name iCycle. Success guaranteed and Indonesian girls will line up to buy one.

  8. deta says:

    He laughed loudly and said “I thought you couldn’t speak Indonesian!”, and waved me on my way….

    I wish I could get away just like that when the police found out that I can speak Indonesian too.

    Agree with pjbali that there is almost no connection between keeping a license with competency in driving. Last time I got my driver’s license extended, the officer only asked if I wouldn’t mind paying an extra 50 K rupiahs so I could skip the painful administration process and get straight to the photo session. They should’ve at least asked if I could drive.

  9. berlian biru says:

    I wish I could get away just like that when the police found out that I can speak Indonesian too.

    My wife gets annoyed with me when I speak Indonesian to policemen, she says that simply gives away the fact that I’ve been living here a long time and know to pay up, whereas if I spoke loudly in English and looked confused the cop will assume I don’t know what’s expected of me and I might get let off.

    It never bothers me to be frank, I’ve never been pulled over without reason and I know it’s wrong and immoral but “tipping” the cop just makes it all simpler and, after all, cheaper too.

    There was one time however when I was pulled over on the toll road and I genuinely had hardly any money, just enough to pay the tolls along the way. I tried explaining that to the officer and then started scrambling around in my wallet, sunshade holder, glove box, pulling together parkir money to get together a decent bribe. I handed over tens and fives and then twos and ones trying make up the money when the cop just got fed up and waved me on in disgust.

    I was extremely embarrassed, feeling I had let him down somewhat but when I explained to my missus she was delighted and insisted that was what I had do in the future.

    Needless to say I haven’t had the heart to do so and just hand over the appropriate bule tax as and when required.

  10. deta says:

    Okay, next time a police pull me over I will speak loudly in English and look confused. Who knows he will guess I am a Thai or Malay getting lost in Indonesia…

    My friends and I once calculated the probability of us getting caught by the police for not having a license in random “razia”, and compared the amount we have to pay on the road with the amount we have to pay at the police office to get a license that can last for 5 years. And yes, it’s cheaper when we just pay the police on the road.

    Still I’d rather have a license. It decorates my purse.

  11. Oigal says:

    Samarinda has one of the best traffic by-laws. You can get pulled over and ahem…fined for having a dirty car. The first time a friend told the story I thought I would split a gut laughing.

    Although to be fair, the rationale was justified to stop all the 4 x 4 and trucks from work/mine sites dumping great wads of clay in city streets. Now however, its a nice little earner after all could anything be more subjective…

  12. BrotherMouzone says:

    Has anyone else tried just driving off at high speed when stopped in a Razia?

    I have a 50% success rate with this strategy. Success is contingent on how much traffic there is ahead and how long the po-po has been on duty since his last kretek…

  13. Chris says:

    Samarinda has one of the best traffic by-laws. You can get pulled over and ahem…fined for having a dirty car.

    This makes me wonder:

    1. What proportion of public transport vehicles get fined regularly?

    2. What time of the year the most fines get issued – wet season (rain, mud) or dry season (dust, ash)?

  14. berlian biru says:

    Has anyone else tried just driving off at high speed when stopped in a Razia?

    Not quite a razzia but I did something similar the other day.

    Rush hour traffic moving very slowly, I am driving along the right hand lane to to turn right off Gatot Subroto to Mampang Prapatan. I encounter a traffic cop waving his light stick maniacally at everyone in that lane to take the U-turn lane back up Gatot Subrotot.

    Not bloody likely mate, go back all the way to Slipi to u-turn and come back again in this macet? You’re having a laugh.

    I turned slightly and then quick as a flash drove behind him onto the right turn lane. I could see him in my rear view mirror looking very angry but what’s he going to do? Leave his position to come over and issue me a ticket? For what? I was in the correct lane and anyway when the light changes I’m simply going to drive off and leave him. He wisely ignored me.

    However I’m intrigued about the 50% statistic, what happened in the other 50%, increased fine?

  15. Oigal says:


    I would suggest the dirty car bylaw is very specifically targeted at foreign company vehicles n expats.

  16. BrotherMouzone says:

    @ Berlian Biru

    It was a Razia, and I hadn’t done anything wrong and had all my papers on me so there was no fine at all. He seemed a little gutted to have chased me a kilometer up the road for nothing… Why didn’t I just stop in the first place? I have no logical answer except that I was in a hurry…

  17. timdog says:

    if I spoke loudly in English and looked confused the cop will assume I don’t know what’s expected of me and I might get let off.

    When I first came actually to live in Indonesia, I could already make some sort of basic shift in Indonesian thanks to several lengthy previous visits, wandering around with a backpack and phrasebook.
    Anyway, one of the first pieces of advice I was given by some time-served old bule, was never let the police know you can speak Indonesian…

    I’ve always stuck to the rule whenever I’m flagged down (except in Bali, where the buggers often have a bit of English), and it’s always seemed to work. You get this sort of look of constipated frustration on the cop’s face, and the almost audible sound of the small cogs of his brain clicking round (“Damn it! How to extract cash without words?”) and then finally a flap of the hand, waving you regretfully onwards…

    On one occassion it had very funny consequences: I was riding through Surabaya one night when I ran into an operation on a bridge in the east of the city. They flagged me down; got the usual “SPEAK INDONESIA?”, did my grin and shrug routine. Often this alone is enough to get me waved on, without even showing the papers. On this occassion, however, the man did sign language for “little piece of paper”, so I handed over the STNK, and my international driving license (always get one of them whenever I’m in the UK – only costs £5 over the counter at the post office, good for a year, and surely a damn sight easier than attempting to get an Indonesian license)…

    Anyway, Pak Polisi gives a cursory scan of the STNK, and then turns his attention to the IDP. He had plainly never seen one before. If you haven’t either, it’s a sort of little booklet thingy, with your photo on the back page, and the entitlements translated into various major languages (not including Indonesian) inside…
    He flicked confusedly through it.
    One of his buddies, checking someone else nearby called over to him: “Where’s he from?”
    Pak Polisi continued to frown confusedly at my IDP: “Dunnu,” he said; “He’s an Arab…”
    F*%$ me sideways? A what??? It was a considerable strain to keep a blank face.
    “Yeah; from Saudi, seems like. Can’t speak…”
    Now despite a dash of the “Black Cornish” tarbrush from my mum, which lets me take the sun, my complexion is fundamentally Celtic, and my eyes are blue. I know that there is such thing as a ginger Arab, but seriously, not even on a dark Surabaya night…
    Eventually he handed back the IDP and waved me on.
    “Shukran, shukran jazilan,” said I, and rode away more confused than I have ever been.

    It was only later, flicking through the IDP and pondering the strange event that it dawned on me – an IDP is kind of passport sized, and he had evidently opened it on the page where my entitlements to drive a car, a motorbike and a milk float were translated into Arabic… Ah, Indonesia’s finest…


    Has anyone else tried just driving off at high speed when stopped in a Razia?

    A bit later I might tell you about the time I kicked a policeman, one of my proudest Indonesian moments…

  18. deta says:

    Alhamdulillah….. 🙂

  19. berlian biru says:

    For those of you without access to a British post office counter (which includes most of the rural and suburban population of the UK these days) you can very easily obtain an IDL through the internet. Google “International Driver Licens/ce” and dozens of sites will come up, mostly national motoring organisations (AAA, RAC etc).

    The procedure couldn’t be easier, you scan your current driving licence, a passport sized photo and a scan of your signature. Email them to the motoring organization with your credit card details and within a week DHL will be delivering your shiny new IDL to your door.

    I can confirm that it is perfectly acceptable to cops here, in fairness I find that a copy of my membership card of the Shuffington Working Men’s Club, expired June 1986, would be acceptable if accompanied by a note bearing the likenesses of Messrs Sukharno and Hatta.

    Strictly speaking it should be accompanied by your national driver’s licence but the peelers won’t know that, not that my licence confuses them enough already, “Ook? Ook? Di mana Ook? (UK)”.

    If you have got an Indonesian licence and want to renew it conveniently, provided that it expired within twelve months you can now get it done at booths in Gandaria Mall or Block M Mall. Mine is six years out of date so I don’t think I’ll bother.

  20. ET says:

    Anyway, one of the first pieces of advice I was given by some time-served old bule, was never let the police know you can speak Indonesian…

    Sound advice. What you could also do in Bali when you are flagged down for no reason but only for ATM purposes and if you speak Indonesian fluently enough is threaten to tell your story to Radio Global. This radio station is well known among locals because it gives people the opportunity to vent their frustrations and complaints openly on air and the next day a printed summary of it appears in the Bali Post newspaper. I’ve tried it once when I got pulled over for allegedlly speeding on my old Honda Astrea at the police station near the Goa Lawah – those who have lived long enough in Bali certainly are familiar with its infamous reputation – and it worked wonders. I’ll never forget the faces of those cops, they threw my SIM, driver’s licence and passport copy to the ground and just said “go,go,go!” in frustrated despair.

    The extortion proceedings at this same police station have once been recorded on hidden camera by tourists and were later published on YouTube. The then Bali Governer was quick to denounce the affair as a lie and a scam by the tourists involved but some time later a message appeared in the Bali Advertiser.

    Police Announce Hotline Number

    The Bali Police have introduced a hotline number to fight corruption on the police force. This is aimed at police officers extorting money from tourists and expats as the rogue officers are hurting thye island’s image at home and abroad. The 24-hour tourist police hotline, which is (0361) 224-111, reach the Police Headquarters and English-speaking officers are standing by to assist tourists and expats who are being ripped off or unlawfully challenged by rogue officers.

  21. timdog says:

    I’m always a little stumped in Bali, ET, as many of the police there do have some kind of grasp of English. It’s the only place where I ever have been fined, but it’s also the one place where I do speak Indonesian to them, and once successfully talked my way out of a fine for not wearing a helmet…

    There’s another notorious police post on the Uluwatu road, on the left close to the “Pecatu Indah/Dreamland” turning.
    Not sure if they’ve been cleaned up, but for years all they ever did was stand under a tree flagging down passing surfers.
    In fairness, in my experience, if you had a license and were wearing a helmet they wouldn’t bother fining you – so many people did commit some small violation that they didn’t feel the need to steal from those who actually hadn’t done anything wrong. And I suppose, by Indonesian policing standards, that probably makes them paragons of virtue…

  22. Kinch says:

    Abandon Hope, for the Kinch has returned!

    Now, where were we?

  23. Oigal says:

    I have to confess that the only times I have been pulled over, I have always been doing something wrong. Ok it’s funny getting zapped for no seat belt as the scooter zips past with mom dad and the three kids sans helm but at the end of the day I was breaking the law. Never been done for absolute nothing, does that count as ethical?

    As for speaking Indonesian that has always reduced the fine.. We want 200,000rp mister, “cut it out, how many mistresses have you got, you need 200,000 then best you give me one of your mistresses before you die of a heart attack”. Laughs all round..and 50,000 all done.

    It’s an art form tho.

  24. ET says:

    I can imagine that on other islands you won’t be pulled over so easily if you haven’t done anything wrong. In Bali however the temptation is simply too big with all that loose cash riding and running around with nothing else to do but spend, spend, spend…

  25. BrotherMouzone says:

    @ TimDog

    “I’m always a little stumped in Bali, ET, as many of the police there do have some kind of grasp of English.”

    This is where the third language comes into play. I use my – admittedly appalling – Russian for authenticity, but made up Gobbledygook will suffice (and is much more fun).

  26. Chris says:

    Interesting article on a similar theme:
    How one Aussie tourist dies every nine days on paradise island of Bali

    I thought this graphic was clever, although the policeman photo looks suspiciously like the Monopoly “Go To Jail” picture:

  27. BrotherMouzone says:

    “I thought this graphic was clever, although the policeman photo looks suspiciously like the Monopoly “Go To Jail” picture”

    I wonder what it says on the Indonesian version of Monopoly. “Go to Jail or Pay IDR 200,000”.

  28. Chris says:

    I wonder what it says on the Indonesian version of Monopoly. “Go to Jail or Pay IDR 200,000?.

    😀 Good idea!

    Continuing the same concept:

    – The Bali section of Monopoly (the blue bit, i.e. Mayfair, Park Lane) would have no houses, only hotels.

    – Building houses/hotels would result in additional payments to the utilities (electricity, water) to ensure reliable supply.

    – No “Free Parking”.

  29. BrotherMouzone says:

    – Income Tax, Pay, y’know, whatever you can negotiate

    – Additional feature where you can build warungs and houses on roads you don’t even own, then they have to pay you when they want to remove them.

  30. Chris says:

    Interesting statistic in this report from (Australian government-funded TV channel) ABC:

    65 000 Australians visit Denpasar’s Sanglah Hospital every year, or over 150 every day. That is more than some public hospitals in Australia.

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