Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Motorcycle Accident

Dealing with the police in a foreign country is terrifying.

Even the threat of police is scary.

Two weeks ago I touched a motorcycle on my way to work.

He was in the middle of the intersection, facing me in my lane, to turn right (his right, my left – remember they drive on the other side of the road here).  I was stopped, waiting for him to turn so I could continue forward.  My friend in the passenger seat said, “Why don’t you go around?”

Which was the perfectly logical thing to do, seeing as he was blocking my path.

I started inching my way forward with the intention of going around him since the oncoming lane was free.

Then a taxi bus changed lanes into the lane I was going to drive into.

I stopped and overcompensated as I turned the car left.

I touched the motorcycle and scratched his plastic carrying case (pannier?) on the side of his bike.  No one was hurt nor did I push the bike over.  It was one of those stupid moments where I forgot which side of the car I was on and misjudged the allowable distance. 

I asked my friend to roll down her window and the woman on the back of the motorcycle made angry hand gestures at me.  She looked at the plastic and talked to man driving.  They turned left to get out of the intersection.  I continued driving straight.

The motorcycle pulled ahead of me at the next intersection where I was turning right.  After the turn he pulled over to the side of the road so I pulled off too.

He was really angry and insulted my driving, etc etc etc.  We exchanged information and I took a photo of the damage.  I asked what the next step was.  He said he was going to the police straightaway to report it.  I was surprised and asked if he needed to go to the police.  He said, sarcastically, “Of course.”

Since then I’ve learned that you always involve the police in traffic accidents here.  The insurance providers want a police reference number.

Somehow my phone dropped beneath my seat as I continued on my way to work.  I didn’t notice it wasn’t in my purse.  I thought it was weird that he hadn’t phoned me, but then again it could take a couple days to get a damage estimate.  He could still drive his bike fine.  If it was me I probably wouldn’t get it assessed for a couple days since it was something so minor.

Apparently he’d phoned a couple times during the day.  On my drive to a friend’s house after work I heard my phone beeping.  I arrived at their place and couldn’t find my phone anywhere.  My friend phoned my number so I could find it.

The motorcycle driver had sent me this message:
“You better call me urgently regarding the car accident this morning if you don’t want to be prosecuted. It is unaccepted that you are not taking my calls. I am giving one more fair chance to respond, failure will lead to prosecution.”

As you can imagine, I started crying.  Prosecution?

My read the message and called the guy back for me.  He explained that I was visiting from Canada and having problems with my phone but assured him that everything would get sorted out and paid.  He also said those sorts of text messages are completely unnecessary and asked him to be more polite in the future.

He then poured me a brandy and told me to forward the guys’s bill to him so he could make sure he didn’t charge me something ridiculous.  He said, “Look, Beth, you’re rad.  Don’t feel like you’re alone here.  You can always call one of us if something like this happens.”

I had one more text from motorcycle man that was over-the-top sarcastic:
“Hi Bethany. Kindly forward me your insurance details. Thanks. Ken.”

The following Monday I sent him a text and left a voicemail asking him for some of his details for the insurance form.  His daughter called me back and warned me she’s a legal attorney.  Everthing she said seemed like a thinly veiled threat.  She told me that her father wanted to charge me for a hit and run, but she convinced him not to since then I’d be deported from the country.  She also warned that he had our conversation recorded on his cell phone.

I passed on the relevant information to the insurance company.  Part of me feels like the accident wasn’t 100% my fault since he was in the middle of my lane.  On the other hand, I hit a stationary object.  I hoped the insurance agents would read my description of the accident and assign blame to be something like 80-20.

Instead, the insurance company phoned me to check the damage to my car.  My boss told them, “No we’re not claiming any damages.  It’s the motorcycle.  Check his damage.”

My hopes of evading 100% of the blame plummeted.  It feels like no one here takes ownership of issues.  Back home, ICBC would take full responsibility of the case and assign us our damages.  Here, the insurance company would only examine the case further if I convinced them to do it.  Even with insurance, might makes right in ZA.  And the truth was that I’d rather pay for a plastic pannier than deal with the motorcyclist’s yelling and bullying. 

This incident had a number of consequences:

  1. It made me extremely homesick for my family, friends, and familiar legal system.
  2. I sympathize more with foreigners who are trying to figure out another country’s laws.  It’s true that anything you say will be used against you.  The attorney daughter threatened, “We have it recorded that you didn’t want my father to go to the police.”  I answered, “No, it’s not that I didn’t want him to.  I was surprised because in Canada we don’t involve the police unless someone is hurt or the damages are over $1000, which is R8000.  Now that I’ve seen the insurance papers, however, I see that it’s part of the procedure here to report all traffic accidents to the police.”  I wonder if she planned to spin that statement into something incriminating.
  3. Friends are more valuable than anything.  I am incredibly grateful to have met such wonderful, generous people in my short time here.
  4. Being a transportation engineer, I like ICBC more than 99% of British Columbians.  But now I appreciate it even more.

This story has a surprisingly happy ending.  This week the attorney daughter phoned me and said they weren’t going to go ahead with the insurance claim or charge me anything. 

I was shocked.

And relieved.

And happy.

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