Firstly, let me say the following are observations and not a criticism of Samoa or Samoans, having been a regular visitor of Samoa for 10 years and now a resident of my adopted country, it is interesting to observe things like driving habits from the perspective of an outsider with more than 30 years of driving experience.
The switch a few years back and the abundance and ease of importing cheap used vehicles from Japan has created an explosion of new drivers on Samoa’s roads and even discussions about traffic management, particularly in and around Apia.
As someone who used to spend more than two hours a day in the Sydney peak hour traffic, I find this mildly amusing, but nevertheless buoyed by the early concerns and actions taken by Samoan authorities to ensure the traffic situation is addressed.
A key part of this has to be to look at driving standards and cracking down on many of the bad habits that have established themselves as part of driving in Samoa.
Speeding, wandering between lanes, dangerous overtaking manoeuvres, lack of spatial awareness, irregular use of indicators and blocking traffic are not only dangerous to current road users, but will continue to grow as issues as Samoa becomes more mobile.
As a regular Motorcycle rider, on both islands, I have an up close and personal experience of most of these issues, punctuated by at least a fortnightly incident that could have ended in my injury or even death as a result of these bad habits. It may sound strange, but I often feel safer riding a motorcycle in Sydney traffic than I do sometimes here in Samoa, all because of those I share the road with.
Having got my license here and helping some locals get theirs, I can see the root of many of the problems is a lack of driver training and the ridiculously easy process to secure a license.
Compared to Australia, where learners have to have 120 hours of logged experience over at least six months before going through a stringent skills and knowledge tests, here it seems that you turn up at the L.T.A and pay your money after sitting in a lecture for a few hours.
Ironically, a Samoan license allows you to drive in Australia for up to three months, but to drive in Samoa you have to get a local permit first.
There are major differences between the driving experience on Upolu and Savai’i, as there is also between Town centres and the villages.
In general the pace is much slower in Savai’i, compared to Upolu, with an added danger being drivers that are driving ridiculously slowly in Savai’i.
Common thinking is that driving slow is safer, but the reality is that those driving slowly are usually doing so because of a lack of confidence and skills, which is apparent in their inability to keep on a consistent course, weaving across lanes and often driving on the wrong side of the road.
When regular traffic comes up behind these slow drivers, added danger is there when forced to overtake on sometimes narrow or twisting roads.
Speeding is more prevalent in Upolu and I notice the increased presence of L.T.A Traffic patrols with speed radars to address this, but over in Savaii, the biggest problem is speeding through villages particularly by trucks, busses, government vehicles and those trying to get back home from a late ferry.
One sight that constantly fills me with fear is the sight of the fuel tankers passing through villages full of children, dogs, pigs and other traffic at 80 or 90 kph.
In the past couple of years there have been some Government vehicle accidents that have resulted in deaths and the destruction of Government property, all down to speed and lack of driving skills.
Overtaking in Samoa is an interesting thing to behold, with it happening at times on corners rather than on straights and also happening at a speed so slowly that it becomes dangerous to be hanging out on the wrong side of the road for such a long time.
In Australia, overtaking usually happens at higher speeds and the general practise is to get it over and done with as quickly as possible.
I’ve witnessed plenty of dangerous overtakes in Savaii, particularly through the coast village road that twists through the villages heading north from Salelologa, but by far the blackest spot in Samoa for dangerous overtaking has to be the stretch of road from Mulifanua to Vaitele.
Just about every time I ride this stretch on my motorcycle, I will experience a situation where I have to take to the outer edge of the road or even move off the road to avoid being taken out by an overtaker showing little regard to the presence or safety of oncoming traffic.
Motorcyclists in Samoa are virtually invisible, which is not unusual in many countries and even in Australia, rider training prepares you for this in developing your defensive riding skills.
Many drivers in Samoa don’t seem to use their mirrors, nor regularly scan the traffic around them, resulting in many a scare when being overtaken or encountering another vehicle. I always ride with my headlight on, to increase my visibility, but this only seems to get oncoming traffic to flash me to let me know my lights are on. It’s OK, I’m not wasting Cashpower, just trying to be seen.
Indicator use in Samoa and Savaii in particular, seems to be optional when you are actually turning, but compulsory as a method of communicating with those you see on the road.
It is unusual to see two busses pass each other without the customary hello flash of their indicators, but equally unusual for the indicators to be used when stopping, probably because they don’t bother pulling over but rather stop in the middle of the road, which is not only frustrating to those travelling behind, but also dangerous as passing the stationary bus can only happen on the wrong side of the road at a very slow speed.
Cars in Upolu are generally of a higher standard compared to those getting around Savaii. Away from the town centres, there are many older vehicles, usually rusted out, often with fewer than enough studs holding on wheels with tyres well past their used by date and many that are not registered because they don’t drive near the town or authorities. Slowly, these death traps on wheels are being replaced by modern roadworthy vehicles, a situation that can’t come fast enough.
I get the feeling that Upolu drivers look after their vehicles better than those in Savaii, indicated by the ridiculously slow speed Upolu drivers tackle the many potholes on Upolu roads. One more than one occasion I have had to jump on the brakes to stop running into someone that has suddenly gone from 60 to about 20 and swerving all over the road because of a few small potholes.
As a palagi, I know too well that I have been targeted by those enforcing seatbelt and license laws, a common complaint I hear from tourists as well. It’s great that the authorities are doing their job, but it is a bit of a double standard to chase seatbelt revenue when every second pickup or truck is going along with unrestrained passengers on the back.
Often these are kids, not sitting in the tray, but standing up where they could easily loose balance and tumble off, a situation often reported in the newspaper. I have witnessed the Police pickups full of people in the back and speeding along, so if those enforcing the laws are setting this as an example, what chance do we have of improving basic road safety?
Anyway, that’s what an outsider sees on Samoan roads. Please keep an eye out for your fellow road users and show them the respect and courtesy that Samoans are famous for when not behind the wheel of a vehicle.
*The Stupid Palagi is actually a palagi who wants to remain anonymous in case he gets knocked over the next time he is on the road in his new country.