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Old school fool
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Anthropologists often speak of differences in culture in terms of differing “norms.” These can be as obvious as how people of different cultures greet one another when they meet on the street, a bow, a handshake or a kiss, or as discrete as a small hand gesture that is easily understood by all the locals but unfathomable to any foreigner. These differences are what makes travel so wonderful. The observation of odd habits in foreign lands is at the very least amusing; at its best gives us the opportunity for self reflection and a deeper understanding of our own culture.

The motorcyclist riding in a foreign land (or even a novice rider in our own country) does not have time for amusement or self reflection. For them the quick and accurate understanding of norms in action can mean life or death. This is because norms are not simply an archaic anthropological concept best confined to a text book, norms define what people are likely to do, and knowing what someone is likely to do -especially when that someone is behind the wheel of a car hurtling down the street at you- can keep you alive.

Every new driver has to learn defensive driving. This is very much a study of norms. Learn what the people in cars around you are likely to do and you will be safe. While certain aspects can be taught, true understanding can only be gained through experience. This lack of experience hampers the new driver's ability to make judgements. Simply put, when an inexperienced driver comes across an emerging situation on the road in front of them, they lack the experience that would allow them to predict many of the possible outcomes of a that situation; given the same situation, a more experienced driver might have little trouble.

Once learned, defensive driving becomes second nature and the experienced driver doesn't even need to think about what he is seeing, he can simply read the road and react to what is happening. When moving to a new country, however, the clock is reset. Because each country has its own set of norms, even experienced drivers must re-learn defensive driving. Unfortunately like most skills learned in life, it is easy to forget just how hard it was to learn in the first place and even experienced drivers and riders can be at a loss for what to do.

In my life, I have had to learn defensive driving several times. What’s more, once I have adapted to a new set of norms I have had to forget them and re-learn how to drive in the United States. The following are a few techniques I have used with great success:

1: Learn about the local laws - This seems obvious but even the most basic elements of this are often overlooked in the rush to move to a new place. For example Americans often think that their state issued driver’s license is valid all over the world - it is not. Responsible people should research the traffic laws of the country they are traveling to before they go abroad. They should also learn to use the local units of measurement and learn to recognize basic signage and pavement markings. In the United States, for example, a large white diamond painted on the road surface means “Carpool Lane” in Japan it means “Crosswalk Ahead.”

2: Learn about the local road conditions - This can be a great deal of information. It include everything from the materials used to make the pavement to what kind of roadkill you might expect to encounter. When you are on two wheels, everything can be important. The more you know, the better off you will be.

3: Take the time to make your own first-hand observations before jumping out into traffic - Ride in the passenger seat for a while and really learn what the locals do. In the United States and Japan moving traffic would never stop to let a car from a side street enter the traffic stream, in Jamaica it was common - and unless you know it you could rear end someone quick. In America and Jamaica a driver pulling up to a stop sign would make eye contact with cars in the stream of traffic, in Japan they never look until after they are stopped. That can be pretty frightening and I have hit the brakes more than once.

4: Physically practice what you can with the tools you have - My first few weeks in Japan I walked around like I was driving a car. Every time I stepped out the door of my apartment I moved to the left hand side of the hallway. I walked on the left hand side of the stairs and even the left side of the sidewalk. I forced myself to scan traffic by looking “right-left-right” instead if “left-right-left” like my driver’s Ed teacher taught me. Doing stuf like this can seem silly, but they reinforce the rules of the road. With time and practice, these things become natural and that is one less thing you have to think about while riding.

5: Drive a car and wait until you are good and comfortable before throwing a leg over a bike - In a car a simple traffic accident can be damned inconvenient and cost you quite a bit of cash. On a bike, it can ruin your whole day and the cost could be assessed in flesh and blood.

6: Make sure you have or can get the right safety gear - People thought I was nuts when I packed my motorcycle gear in my luggage. It was bulky and heavy, but I never could have found the right sizes in Japan. I'm a big guy and the sizes just won't work. It was better to carry my own than do without.

7: Pay up your health insurance - If the worst thing happens, you are a long way from your support network. Chances are you aren’t going to be able to cover your hospital costs with the money you have on you and the local Embassy’s ability to help is limited. If you are seriously considering riding overseas get international health insurance. Know also that the US Government does not pay to medivac people to the United States and purchasing separate insurance for this could save you and your family tens of thousands of dollars.

Riding a bike is a wonderful hobby and adds a lot to life both at home and overseas. Be sure and use all the tools at your disposal to stay safe and alive, but know that the best solution to a problem is avoiding one in the first place. Use your head and get prepared before risking life and limb in the pursuit of a little fun.
 
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