If you’ve been anywhere in SE Asia, you’ve probably seen scores of tourists zipping around on scooters. Coming and going at will with the wind in their faces and the sun on their backs. It looks like fun, and with hire scooters readily and cheaply available just about everywhere, no questions asked, it’s really tempting to join them. But before you do, there are a few things you should know.
Legally, all scooter riders in Indonesia are required to have a valid motorbike licence
Yes, I know that’s not what the backpacker staying in the room next door said. Or what you read on XYZ’s blog. Or what the man renting out the scooters on the corner told you. But let me repeat myself… Legally, all scooter riders in Indonesia are required to have a valid motorbike licence. No different to home! Without one, you’re essentially breaking the law.
What those people who say you don’t need one are actually saying is, you probably won’t get into too much trouble if you’re prepared to pay the on the spot “fine” the local constabulary will levy when they catch you riding without a licence. Unlicensed tourists on bikes are quite a lucrative industry, especially in Bali. They’re easy to spot and having been caught breaking the law, in no position to argue. With a going rate anywhere between Rp. 15.000 to 40.000, a pittance to most tourist, they’re usually happy to pay up and ride on. But if you get pulled over three times in a single day – don’t laugh, it happens – it can get expensive.
What is a valid motorbike licence and how do you get one?
Since Indonesia recognises International Driving Permits (IDP’s), the easiest way to get a valid licence is to obtain an IDP before you leave home. Costs vary from country to country but the general criteria is that you must be over 18 years of age and have a full, valid licence (no learners permits) for your home country. The catch is that IDP’s are endorsed for the same classes of vehicle as your normal licence, so unless you already have a motorbike licence at home, you won’t be permitted to ride one overseas. Also note that the IDP supplements, but doesn’t replace, your home licence. When driving or riding overseas, you are required to carry both with you.
IDP’s aren’t valid for the country they’re issued in, so don’t wait until you’re overseas to get one. Do it before you leave home. The good news is that IDP’s are valid for 12 months and are widely recognised around the world, including most SE Asia countries (Vietnam being the exception). So if you’re on an extended trip, you can certainly get your money’s worth.
The only other way to obtain a valid motorbike licence overseas, is to apply for a local licence. Generally, this will require you to take a written test, in the local language, and a driving test. Obviously, this isn’t really a practical option for most tourists. We’ve heard rumours of a certain police station in Bali waving these requirements for a fee, but I’m not going to get into that.
Most hirers don’t care if you’ve never ridden before
They’ll tell you it’s easy and the scooters are low powered and automatic. A couple of quick turns around the car park and you’ll be set. Off you go, no problem! Well actually, it’s not really that easy at all. Not once you’re out on the road – which is most likely in poor condition – getting a little speed up or negotiating a turn, navigating unfamiliar roads and dealing with other road users when you have little or no understanding of local road rules or behaviour. Under those conditions, it’s very easy to come unstuck. Speaking of other road users…
The traffic in Indonesia is chaotic
Unlike the orderly traffic conditions you’re probably familiar with at home, road users in Indonesia (and SE Asia generally) have very little regard for sticking to the road rules. Frankly, I’m not sure they have too much regard for life or limb either, considering how lunatic behaviour is so common it’s actually normal.
Frankly, inexperienced riders and chaotic traffic don’t often mix well and many a holiday has been cut short after a nasty fall or accident and yes death! The risk is somewhat reduced on quieter country roads but the roads are often in a much poorer state so it’s a trade-off. Now this brings me to the point…
What happens if you have an accident?
There are a few things to consider, should you have an accident. We’ll address them one by one…
Personal injury to you or your pillion passenger
Obviously, this is the biggest concern. If you’re lucky, it won’t be more serious than a nasty case of gravel rash. Although even that can seriously detract from enjoying your holiday. But if your injuries require medical treatment, hospitalisation or god forbid, prove fatal, you better hope you’ve got travel insurance in place because the costs of medical evacuation or repatriation of your body could be in the order of US$100,000.
Read this next bit carefully because it’s important. Many traveller insurers, generally the one offering the cheaper plans, exclude cover for motorbike accidents. Other insurers only cover personal injury costs to a under certain circumstances, not least of which is that scooter is being operated in a lawful manner. If you don’t hold a valid drivers licence, you are riding illegally. This means you and your pillion passenger won’t be covered. Full stop!
Policies and coverage vary from provider to provider, and depending on your country of residence, so be sure to read your policy details carefully. For instance, for Australians, our preferred travel insurer World Nomads, also requires that you hold a motorbike licence in Australia for the same class of bike you’ll ride overseas, regardless of the local laws or whether or not you have a local licence. You can check out their requirements and what they will and won’t cover here. Be sure to select your country of residence.
As a point of interest, World Nomads state right there on their website that injury from a motorcycle accident is one of the most common claims they receive.
Property damage or theft
This includes damage to the scooter you’re riding or damage to a third parties property such as another scooter, car or building. Remember that guy hiring the scooter that we talked about above? The one we said doesn’t care if you’ve every ridden a scooter before? Well he might not care so much about you, but he certainly cares about his scooter. That’s why he’s holding your passport. To ensure you bring the scooter back undamaged or bring enough cash to cover any damage. Maybe he sold you insurance – did you read the fine print? Do you know what your excess is or under what circumstances you can make a claim?
Without wanting to sound too negative, this whole issue is a minefield and scams abound. We’ve heard stories of unsuspecting tourists being followed and having their rental scooter “stolen” back by the renter the first time they left it unattended. After having their passports held to ransom until they shelled out an exorbitant amount of money to cover the loss, the scooter has miraculously reappeared in the renters shop a day later. Another scam involves having the hiree sign a rental agreement specifying a set amount should the scooter be damaged. Tourists don’t realise until it’s too late that the degree of damage isn’t specified so they find themselves forking over replacement cost for a superficial scratch that may or may not have been there before they even took possession of the scooter. These aren’t the only scams we’ve heard of, and most hirer’s in Bali are pretty straight up, but scams do happen and unwitting tourists do get caught out.
Should you find yourself in a truly sticky, expensive situation, your options really are limited. Regardless of whether someone else caused the damage, or you were a victim of theft or were scammed, don’t expect any help from the local constabulary. They’re not going to take your side and they’re not going to help you recover your passport. Even if they believe it wasn’t your fault. At best, they’ll have you fill out an onerously long report which they’ll file away and do nothing with. At worst, they’ll pressure you to pay up, perhaps even threaten to charge you with something until you do. Because that way, they can get a cut of the action.
You could consider doing a midnight run out of town and lying low until you can arrange a replacement passport, but there’s every chance someone will be watching in case you do just that. And away from Bali, foreign travellers tend to stick out like a proverbial sore thumb. You’ll have the cops or henchmen descending on you before you know it.
For the record, most travel insurers won’t cover you for motorbike related property damage, insurance excess or theft of scooter or personal items left with the scooter. So you’ll quite possibly be on your own in this regard, but again, check your policy.
You might get away with riding around without a licence by bribing a police officer, but don’t expect to get off so lightly if you’re involved in a serious incident. In 2014, an Australian man on a surfing holiday in West Java, was charged with reckless driving causing the death of a local woman, who was riding pillion on the other bike. Despite maintaining his innocence, he was found guilty and faced up to 6 years in prison, although he was eventually only sentenced to serve 9 months behind bars. There are numerous other cases of foreigners being charged for serious traffic offences in Indonesia. Punishment can include a substantial fine, damages awarded to victims, jail time or a mixture of all three.
Still want to ride a scooter?
So you’ve weighed up your abilities, noted the risks, and you still want to ride a scooter – either licenced or unlicensed? That’s entirely your prerogative, but please at least take some precautions.
- Always wear a helmet, correctly fitted and strapped on. Full face helmets offer the best protection if available.
- Cover up. Long sleeves, trousers and enclosed shoes will give you some protection if you take a tumble.
- Go with the flow of traffic – like swimming in a school of fish rather than on the outside where the big fish are prowling.
- Don’t overload your scooter. Just because the locals ride around with three or four to a scooter, a chicken and a week’s worth of shopping, doesn’t mean you should.
- Don’t ride under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- Don’t drive at night, except in well lit up areas (few and far between in SE Asia).
- Don’t’ speed.
- Don’t get complacent.