Traffic in Egypt

Posted: October 20, 2016 in Thoughts
Tags: , ,

I have always used traffic and driving as a staple whenever I have tried to explain to non-Egyptians how different life in Egypt is from anything they have been accustomed to. If I were to sum up the traffic situation in Egypt in one sentence, it would be: There are no rules!

Sure, it sounds cliche, and many people roll their eyes when they hear this. They must think I am exaggerating. But truthfully I am not. Ok, in theory, there are traffic rules and regulations. In practice, however, these are seen as guidelines (at best), and as non-existent (at worst, which is most of the time). To illustrate, I will give some examples of things that one may encounter on a typical drive:

The first thing one might notice is that the cars are not lined up in neat straight lanes. The concept of “lanes” is non-existent. Ironically, the dashed lane lines are usually painted on the asphalt, however, no one seems to know what they mean. The result is a mess. A spaghetti of vehicles weaving through every little space that clears up. A street that officially has 3 lanes will typically have up to 4 or 5 cars side by side – if they are all going straight.

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This extends to the line that separates the two directions on a 2-way road. These lines are seen as a guideline. If the road is clear, most drivers would stay within their directional area. However, if one of the two directions is jammed, it is common to see someone going over the line, and driving on the other side of the road, hoping to weave back in at another point ahead. Of course, this is not always the case, since their original side is packed to start with, so they end up getting stuck on the wrong side of the road, blocking traffic on the other way. In addition, this action would encourage more drivers to go behind that one driver, essentially forming an additional lane on the wrong side of the road.

The relationship between vehicles and pedestrians is very interesting to watch. First of all, pedestrians do not like to use tunnels or overwalks. They enjoy crossing at any point in the road, especially if the vehicles are not stopping. It requires a certain acrobatic skill to do so of course. So it is very common to see someone take one step forward, then two steps back avoiding a car that barely misses them, then leaping ahead, avoiding the motorcycle whose driver curses at them loudly, then holding still for a couple of seconds while cars move around them, and finally making a run for it. Basically, it’s the human version of the classic video game “frogger”. Motorists also count on pedestrians having that amazing acrobatic skill. When a motorist sees a pedestrian in sight, they do not slow down. They know that the pedestrian will manage somehow to get out of their way, so they just keep going like nothing is there.

Cars are not the only type of vehicles that roam the roads. They are also taxis, busses, mini-busses (closer to “vans” by American terminology), motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, animal-pulled carts, and the newest addition – a motorized rickshaw. All these create a surreal painting of chaos on the road.

Leaving space in front of you is unacceptable. If you leave space, someone else is going to weave into it, so you may as well take it yourself.

People take driving too personally. If someone takes the space in front of someone else, the rear driver is most likely to start cursing at the one in the front. In some cases, they may get more aggressive, and try to go around them then cut them off as a payback. In many instances, that leads to accidents.

Accidents are not resolved in a civilized manner as seen in Europe or in the U.S. Since insurance is not mandatory in Egypt, a driver knows that no one is going to cover their damaged car, so they would take their frustration on the other driver, regardless of whose fault it is. This may be as simple as exchanging a few angry words, or it may escalate to name calling, and even fist fighting.

We do have traffic police who are supposedly aiding and controlling traffic. However, it is not uncommon to see one of these traffic conscripts ignoring whatever is happening on the road, just so they can sit in the shade somewhere and read the newspaper.
It all seems natural to me, and part of growing up in Egypt. But for someone who has never been there, I can only imagine how this would sound like.

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