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watch out
before you use that
zebra crossing

crossing the road in a foreign land...

There are traffic rules and there are traffic rules. However the rules, official or customary, in a foreign country are not necessarily, and often aren't, the same as those in your home country.

Just as Singapore has its peculiar rules, like no jaywalking within fifty metres of the traffic light crossing, other countries too have their own special rules.

Take the zebra crossing. Here, pedestrians have the right of way and the vehicles are supposed to stop. In New Zealand, if you wait at the pavement for the cars to stop, you can stand forever. One is supposed to step on the first white strip to indicate intention to cross. Yet other countries choose to draw their zebra strips at traffic junctions, which means you basically still have to wait for the green man.

One would have thought that the traffic junction is the safest bet. The rules, however, are by no means universal. For instance, the familiar green man does not always mean you can cross. In the mad streets of Cairo, vehicles can tear down at breakneck speeds in total ignorance of the red light. Suffice to say, crossing the roads there entails risking life and limb to slip through any gap in the whizzing traffic, although the locals seem to do it with ease!

Even in London, which has rules similar to ours, I have learned the hard way that a blinking green man in a busy street at peak hour means the vehicles start moving almost instantaneously - quite unlike at home where you can amble across, with time to spare, even after the red man comes on for some junctions. On the other hand, one can safely jaywalk in London without the risk of being fined.

The hardest habit to break by far, and the most dangerous too, is that of looking at the "wrong" side of the road in a country which follows the right-hand-drive rule, such as the United States, China and continental Europe. One has to be on constant alert that one's orientation is reversed, not just for crossing roads but for simple acts like going to the correct side of a bus to board. If your trip is long, it means you have to re-orientate again when you get home. The danger is magnified for those driving in foreign lands - stories of people returning from overseas and driving into the right lane, instead of the left, are not unheard of.

Then there will be the odd place where cars are allowed to move in totally opposite directions on the same lane. I remember a town in Portugal with this rule, perhaps due to the narrowness of the steep cobbled-stone streets.

Familiar signs or not, the next time you want to cross a road in a foreign country, pause and observe how the locals do it. As the saying goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" and you should be fine.

Ong Hwee Yen 1999

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