02.20.06

I drive like you do

Posted in Travel at 15:04 by RjZ

“I drive like you do” is a bumper sticker I once saw. I still remember it nearly every time I get upset at someone’s driving. We’ve all inadvertently cut someone off, tailgated, caught ourselves driving too slowly, or forgotten a turn signal while our minds wandered. When someone else does it, we find ourselves getting angry, but the fact is, there are lot of drivers our there, and this may be that person’s moment of driving just like you sometimes do.

“I drive like you do” doesn’t really apply everywhere, though. U.S. Americans have big, safe roads and huge, cocoon-like cars, so that the worst things we usually deal with are people who we think are rude and signs that aren’t very clear. We don’t, for example, have much experience with things like roundabouts.

roundabout
The arrows don’t really mean anything. Actually cars drive in virtually any direction you can imagine.

In the United Kingdom, there are complex roundabouts of roundabouts, probably influenced by ancient Celtic symbols of fertility. Imagine an inner circle, surrounded by five or more small circles, and then a larger circle around this. Spokes come off the larger circle, and these are the converging roads from which you may choose—if you ever get out of the roundabout! My strategy? Don’t even try to get into the inner circle!

There are two huge roundabouts in Paris. They’re called the Peripheriques. They’re not really roundabouts, of course, but many old European cities are designed around the cow paths that originally threaded through the city. Over centuries, they’ve straightened things out a tiny bit, and now one frequently finds the spoke-and-wheel city layout that Paris exemplifies. The Peripheriques, an inner and an outer one, are the wheel parts. The larger one is like a highway all the way around the city, with signs telling the driver stuck in traffic how long it will take to get to major spokes like the stadium or the Champs Elysées. It gives the drivers something to hope for. The reason for this traffic may have more to do with the drivers than the inefficiencies of the spoke-and-wheel layout. Idling along, I would often see drivers stopped in the middle of the lane, exactly where their cars had failed them. The hood would be up and the beret-wearing man would be bent over the front bumper, smoking and pretending he knew where the smoke emanating from his car was coming from. (All right, I made up the part about the beret.) The only people unaffected by this obstruction, which would eventually wrap all the way around the circle until there was traffic in front of this guy, were the death-lusty scooter drivers who would weave in and out of the randomly moving vehicles, all jostling around the man and car, who were both smoking and wondering who was going to do something first.

A friend of mine observed that Cairenes are related to bats. (Google seems to think that citizens of Cairo are known as, well, “citizens of Cairo.” I’ll go with “Cairenes.”) Cairo is a city of 10 million people. It has huge boulevards, often five lanes on a side—except that the drivers mostly ignore these lane demarcations. They race through the streets, from five to nine abreast, honking their horns constantly, “Honk-honk-ho-ho-ho-ho-honk-honk-honk,” in effort, presumably by echolocation, to notify other drivers of their presence. The horn itself is often located on a lever sticking out of the steering column, instead of the middle of the wheel, to facilitate the constant honking without even removing hands from the wheel. I asked my cab driver why there was a traffic officer in each intersection directing the traffic. My cab driver explained that, until fairly recently, they hadn’t even had many traffic signals. The Cairenes apparently consider them a city beautification project!

Cambodian truck
Speeding by us on a dirt road was a truck over-filled with people breathing in dust that would later give me a lung infection.

Phnom Phen, Cambodia, may be worse. Cambodia is an amazing place, for its resilience if nothing else. They’ve been through the extermination of a majority of their citizens by the Khmer Rouge. In fact, if you meet a man about my age in Cambodia, there is a good chance that he was in the Khmer Rouge, and may even have been one of the guards who committed so many atrocities. After all, if he’s still alive, he’d have to be former Khmer Rouge, because nearly everyone else was killed! Adding insult to injury, civil war followed for years after the reign of Pol Pot. Today, though the people are remarkably friendly, I am not surprised that they don’t have much affection for authority. The traffic signals in Phnom Phen may be city beautification projects, but the traffic officers must be, too. “Racing” to the airport to make my return flight, it became obvious why it was a good idea to leave plenty of time. Cars inched past traffic police, hands raised and whistles blowing, in all four directions. The police would give stern looks to the drivers, who ignored them and the traffic signals with equal disregard.

India seems to have given up on both traffic signals and traffic police. As a former British colony, India often has large, complex traffic circles. Unlike in the U.K., however, there’s much more than just cars and trucks on the road. Drivers follow a might-makes-right hierarchy in order to survive. According to my observations, right-of-way is determined as follows: cows -> all other animals -> trucks, busses, to smallest cars -> tuc tucs and other motorized contraptions -> bicycles and other human-powered contraptions -> and finally, if you’re crazy enough to try walking on the street, pedestrians.

Even outside the city, on the rather narrow, pot-holed roads, the hierarchy holds. Indians also employ the Cairene strategy. Trucks have fantastic, detailed advertisements on their backs, and often in mirror reverse on the front, that say “Honk Please!” They come at each other, both in the center of the road, honking madly and playing chicken until the last possible second, when the driver with the smallest truck—or the least courage—slows and veers off to the side.

Here in the U.S., when I am angry at other drivers—yelling from within my safe cocoon to let off steam, and thankfully not offending my fellow travelers, oblivious inside their own cocoons—I remember that their mistakes are not unlike my own. If that isn’t enough to calm me back down quickly, I can at least be thankful that the only thing I have to avoid is oblivious drivers, not camels or mopeds struggling to carry a family of four along with their belongings stacked up eight feet or higher above them. Thankfully, even driving can be a lesson in how to live peaceably with each other. Just don’t cut me off!

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