Penang Drivers: Crazy, or Misunderstood?

When it comes to driving in Malaysia, it’s the drivers on Penang Island that have the worst reputation of all. Young drivers, unfamiliar with the territory, are usually warned before they make their journeys up north. “They don’t give you way”, you usually hear. “They cut into your lane without warning, they’re very aggressive”.

And yet, for as long as I’ve had my license and for the numerous times I’ve been to Penang over the years, I have never had a problem with Penang traffic. Through all the roadworks and the congestion, facing traffic during rush hour and doing round-the-island runs in the dead of night- Penang has been good to me.

But why is this the case? Perhaps the answer lies in understanding the Penang drivers themselves, and taking a look at the environment in which they drive. Even though there are parts of the island that are fairly sparsely populated and traffic free, the vast majority of the population operates in a fairly concentrated area of Penang.

With the exception of the newer free-trade zone areas where roads are designed to be wide in order to accommodate large trailers and lorries, a lot of the roads on the island possibly pre-date the introduction of motorized vehicles.  Driving along the North-Eastern edge of the island, through Batu Feringghi and up to the Teluk Bahang dam, you will usually find that the road becomes impossibly narrow at times.

Precision becomes important. Unlike city folk, Penang drivers don’t have much space to work with- and so every inch of road space has to be put to good use. This becomes a problem when you deal with more congested areas, such as the markets near Kek Lok Si temple, where it’s not uncommon to find motorbikes and cars parked by the roadside.

When two lanes become a lane and a half, you are presented with a choice. The car facing the obstruction can slow down and wait to merge with the lane on the right- and this is what most drivers would expect to do. But perhaps the more practical solution, even if in a legal grey area, is for the car on the right to give as much room as it can and for the obstructed car to run right alongside it until they’re past whatever is blocking the road.

It’s a matter of ego and understanding. In this kind of situation if the driver is not used to the kind of lane straddling required, they may be unpleasantly surprised to find Penangites half-laning it through congested city roads. But if both cars understand this, traffic flows a lot more smoothly and without incident, rather than the erratic stop-go of an unmanaged merging flow.

But what of how Penang drivers are prone to cutting off people who wish to merge? This is more a matter of reaction time than anything else. Island life moves quickly, and Penangites don’t have time to wait around for you to merge. If you put your signal on and move within the first few seconds, they will happily oblige and you can go on your merry way. But if you leave the signal running for a good five seconds or more, you can count on them speeding up to get past you in your seemingly undecided ways.

Once you take the small details like this into account, it’s fairly easy to get around Penang without getting frustrated or being afraid. The point is to go with the ebb and flow of the traffic- when in Rome, and all that- and before you know it, you’ll be fairly acclimatized with the way things work. Things move quickly on Penang island, and not playing by their rules is akin to throwing a wrench into a fairly well-oiled machine. Just don’t forget to slow yourself down once you’re back off the island- you wouldn’t want people thinking you’re crazy.