Driving Advice

For over a week this lamp had all three lights lit at the same time.

Since Indonesia is the 4th most populated country in the world, and the population lives on densely populated islands, traffic safety is a major concern for foreigners. Dangerous traffic conditions pose a more serious threats than that of terrorists, robbers, or pickpockets, etc.

There are many negative articles online that that can be read about Indonesian traffic, most of which were written by foreigners who have had very bad driving experiences. While it’s true that there are tremendous challenges to driving in Indonesia, foreigners must understand that they are the outsiders, and their complaining won’t change the traffic situations. There are many cultural and social attitudes associated with Indonesian traffic, and if changes are going to be made they must come from within. The same can be said of the negative social behavior of cutting-into-lines in Indonesia. That behavior can be directly associated with driving conditions.

Below is general advice to foreigners who must drive on Indonesian roads. This isn’t an attempt to be critical or condescending. It’s merely a warning to foreigners so they can be informed of what to expect, which will then enable an easier adjustment to Indonesian culture.

♦  Traffic lights, even if they are working, are often ignored. The only intersections where drivers will obey them are the ones that have permanently assigned policemen manning the booth at that intersection. In the City of Jambi there are only a handful of intersections like that. If you stop at a traffic light which typically nobody stops at, you risk getting rear-ended. You also feel quite foolish sitting there with people passing you on the left and right while they run the red light.

♦  Motorcycles tremendously outnumber four-wheel vehicles. They are like ants that swarm all over the road. Cars and trucks have to be very careful because the motorcycles, unconscious of the danger they put themselves in, will cut in on you, pull out in front of you, merge onto the road in front of you without looking before they merge, etc., etc..

  • P. changing a tire.

A non-written rule is that the WEALTHY DRIVER OF THE CAR needs to make way for the POOR person on the motorcycle. If the motorcycle cuts you off, they expect you to accept it and you need to brake for them.  If there’s an accident between a motorcycle and a car…the car is at fault.  Groups of motorcycle riders will sometimes threaten the driver of a car who is involved in an accident with a motorcycle, regardless of who is at fault.

♦  Always be prepared for flat tires. If you are traveling long distances you should be aware that there are few roadside services with which you can expect a rapid response. On one trip we had two flat tires. We were thankful we fixed the first one immediately after it happened, or we wouldn’t have had a spare to put on when the second tire went flat.

♦  If you hit a pedestrian or motorcycle, …it may be best if you go straight to the nearest police station and report it. If you stop, your life could be at risk and your vehicle could be demolished. That is the worst case scenario, but it has been known to happen. If you don’t have money to pay for hospital bills, motorcycle repairs, or funeral expenses if someone is killed, you better be prepared to spend some time in jail until you come up with that money. For the “rich” foreigner, the cost will be much more than if it was an Indonesian driving. In August of 2012 we had an Indonesian acquaintance hit a motorcycle head-on with their car. The driver of the motorcycle was killed and the passenger hospitalized. That Indonesian spent several days in jail until he payed $2,500 (USD). The foreigner shouldn’t expect to get off with such a small amount.

♦  Domesticated animals frequently cross and walk along roads.   Some have told us that if you hit and kill a:

Medium Sized Water Buffalo

Medium Sized Water Buffalo

……….Chicken, you may be required to replace it with a goat.
……….Goat or sheep, you may be required to replace it with a cow.
……….Cow, you may be required to replace it with a water buffalo.
……….Water buffalo—your car will be totaled :^)

♦  Helmets are required by law, but in our area of Indonesia many don’t use them. It’s rare to see children wearing a helmet. If people know they have to pass a police post they will wear a helmet, or they will go out of their way to avoid that police post. It’s very rare for police to chase you with a vehicle to issue a ticket. They will stop people at intersections where their police post is located, or they will set up check points along the road to stop people and check registrations and driver’s license.

♦  It’s common to see 3, 4, and up to 6 people on a motorcycle.  Since most families only have a motorcycle, those families will all ride on that one motorcycle.

  It’s common to see children as young as 8 years old driving motorcycles on the main roads, often with several of their friends sitting behind them—all without helmets. They have no knowledge of road safety and they learn about driving from observing their parents and other drivers, who’ve never been to a driver’s safety class.

♦  Great caution needs to be exercised around school zones. Since there are usually inadequate sidewalks, children will walk along and on the roads, often 3 abreast. Jr. and Sr. High School students often ride motorcycles to school, and when school is out, there is a lot of reckless driving and racing of motorcycles.

Family of four on a motorcycle. Only one helmet.

Family of four on a motorcycle.
Only one helmet.

♦  Most people get their driver’s license without taking a test. Even though there is a testing process in place, both written and practical. There are ways to get around that process.

♦  Driving outside the main cities will present a different set of circumstances. There are often landslides and  very large holes in the roads. Many trucks overturn going through these large holes because they are often top heavy. When these top-heavy trucks go through holes, they will begin swaying, which causes them to tip over. This has been known to block roads and make them impassable till the tipped over vehicle is moved out of the way. Rarely can you ever go faster than 45 mph (safely).

♦  Cars and trucks going through intersections often use 4-way flashers. You don’t know if they are going straight or if they are planning to turn. Because intersections are so dangerous, they feel that using the 4-ways will be safer.

Some of the worst situations you may experience.

Some of the worst situations you may experience.

♦ Cars approaching you from the opposite direction will turn on their right turn signal (driving is on the left side of the road). This right turn signal could mean a number of things:

.◊◊  This is their way of telling the oncoming traffic, “I’m moving over into your lane a little, so please get over to your left shoulder and make room for both of us.” They may need to do this while they are passing a motorcycle or trying to avoid a pot hole on the left side of their lane.

….◊◊  This is their way of asking the oncoming traffic, “Do you see me coming at you?”

♦  Indonesian “space” is different than the “space” that is comfortable for westerners. If Indonesians see “space” in the road, it will quickly be filled, regardless of center lines, curb lines, or rules of the road. That means passing on the left or right side of the road is acceptable, even on city streets. The general thought is, “if there’s space, and my vehicle will fit into it, I can use it.”

Transporting a load of coconuts.

Transporting a load of coconuts.

♦  If there are traffic jams and a motorcycle driver sees “space” on the sidewalk, they will not pause to think about the situation. They will immediately take the sidewalk around the traffic jam.

  In rural areas where traffic is relatively light, people will use the “space” on the road to lay out a tarp and dry their rice and other produce on it. This reduces the two lane road to only one lane. This is a common and acceptable practice–though illegal.

Using the road to dry rice. Many other fruits and vegetable products are dried in the sun like this. Fish is frequently seen drying in the sun like this too.

Using the road to dry rice. Many other fruits and vegetable products are dried in the sun like this. Fish is frequently seen drying in the sun like this.

♦  In cities merchants will set up their stalls on the roads to sell their produce. They will also lay out tarps and put their produce on it.

….◊◊  For weddings, funerals, and other celebratory events, part of the street will be used for parking or for a section of a tent to be set up. Sometimes the entire street is blocked off and the tent covers the street from one shoulder to the other. This is usually done in a small community and traffic is routed around. On main highways, which in Jambi are merely narrow two-lane roads, there will be motorcycles parked on the edges of the roads with a sign positioned in the center of the road, informing passerby’s that an activity is going on and that they should slow down. This creates many road hazards, for pedestrians and for vehicles.

Women collecting money for mosque construction. This is on a very busy highway.

Women collecting money for mosque construction. This is on a very busy highway.

….◊◊  To collect money for Mosque construction, money collectors will set up in the very center of the roads. Often women, very young children, or elderly men, will be seen standing in the center of these highways using a “butterfly net” with which to collect money from passing vehicles. This situation makes for an extremely dangerous situation.  There are huge trucks that pass by these people at high speeds and at very close distances–sometimes less than two feet away when they pass.

♦  Tailgating is the normal way to drive. Vehicles will follow extremely close to the vehicle in front of them, even at high speeds. Indonesians are not intimidated by lack of space, as westerners are. Indonesians have lived in densely populated areas their entire life. They love loud music and crowds…the more the merrier. The same goes for traffic. They are not intimidated by the density of traffic. If they see that you are leaving a space open between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you (your safe driving distance), they see that as you inviting them to pass you so they can fill that space—which they will promptly do. Westerners see this as being “cut off.”

Tailgating: a term describing not allowing a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front of you.

Tailgating: a term describing not allowing a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front of you.

♦  Motorcycles wanting to merge into traffic from a side street and go in the opposite direction of the lane immediately in front of them, will travel against the traffic on the left side of the road looking for an opening with which to merge.

♦  Vehicles will park anywhere. Most two lane streets are almost always reduced to a single lane due to the one lane used for parking. These streets are also reduced to one lane by many men who transport goods via handcarts.

These handcarts are a common site on Indonesian roads. Besides restricting the smooth flow of traffic, these men place themselves at great risk.

These handcarts are a common site on Indonesian roads. Besides restricting the smooth flow of traffic, these men place themselves at great risk.

♦  With a developing economy, bridges are frequently in need of repair. Bridges also come under attack by thieves, who steal girders, which they will sell as scrap.

♦  Bridges are a socializing location in Indonesia. Four lane bridges on weekend evenings are frequently reduced to a single lane, due to cars and motorcycles parking along the length of the bridge on either side. Food venders and other merchants also set up their carts on bridges like this.

Makalam Bridge as a Socializing Center

Makalam Bridge as a Socializing Center


♦  Vehicles will park in the middle of the lane to change tires or make repairs, even on two lane highways. Drivers will cut brush from along the side of the road to use as warning markers. This brush is used in lieu of florescent triangle markers or flares. If you come up to a blind curve and see brush on the road, be aware that there’s probably a truck around the curve getting a tire changed.

Warning Triangels

Warning Triangles: Instead of these hazard indicators, Indonesians will cut brush from alongside the road and place them about 50′ in front and 50′ behind a stalled vehicle.

♦  Night driving is discouraged because many motorcycles, cars, and trucks either don’t use their lights, or their lights are not functioning. There’s also a problem of pedestrians, who are ignorant of the fact that drivers can’t see them.

♦  Rules of the road are not known by most drivers. Because of that, you can’t expect people to follow the rules. You have to be extremely defensive in your driving.

♦  Public transportation vehicles (angkutan kota) are very reckless. They will speed up and cut in on traffic on a regular basis. They make very rapid stops. Following too closely is extremely dangerous.

♦  It is rare to see speed limits signs in Jambi. The limits are set by the individual drivers. The limit is whatever their nerves or vehicle can handle. We’ve never heard of a person being arrested or fined for speeding.

♦  Though vehicles drive on the left side of the road in Indonesia, don’t be surprised when motorcycles will drive toward you and pass you on your left side. This is just a general way things are done here.

♦  Road signs are seen, but either people don’t know what they mean or just decide to ignore them. We’ve asked some drivers what certain road signs meant and they frequently didn’t know.

♦  Many motorcycles do not have rear-view mirrors. They are oblivious to the driving conditions to their sides or behind them. Many will swerve in and out of traffic indiscriminately.


Either right or left extended arm is used to signal other drivers. With the palm facing down, and fingers wiggling, the signal can mean: 1) “Please Use Caution,” 2) “I’m turning” (left or right); 3) “I’m stopping”; 4) “I’m slowing down”; 5) “I’m going to do something….”

♦  Because motorcycle turn signals don’t automatically shut off after a turn, like a turn signal on a car, it’s common to see motorcycle turn signals left on for a long period of time. They often will not use them when they are merging or turning.

♦  Universal Hand Signal: pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, and trucks, Indonesians will use either the right or left arm to give signals. This signal is an extended arm (approx. 50o downward angle), with the palm down. The hand will be wiggled to get attention. The arm is extended in the direction in which the vehicle is to turn. It is also used to indicate they are stopping and to warn other vehicles that they are “going to do something!”  For pedestrians, they also use the arm signal to stop traffic so they can cross roads.

♦  Don’t depend on motorcycle brake lights. Even if they did work, drivers frequently change the brake light lens to a different color, or take it off completely. In the day light they can’t be seen, and at night their tail light looks like a head light, blinding the drivers behind them.

♦  Motorcycles by law are required to use their headlights during the daytime, but it’s rare to see this happen. When we have used the headlight on our motorcycle, kind people would frequently inform us that we had forgotten to turn it off. Many believe the headlight will drain their battery.


For many people, the stress of driving on Indonesian roads is overwhelming. If that is the case, instead of complaining about something you can’t change, it would be much easier and more relaxing to hire a full-time driver. The cost for a driver is around $150-200 per month. Doing this would eliminate “most” of the stress, and it would also be safer for you if there would happen to be an accident.

There is a nice park in the City of Bandung that teaches children traffic safety (Taman Lalu Lintas). That is an amazing park and every city should consider building one of them. That would be a good first step in addressing the traffic situation in Indonesia.