The day that I got my learner’s permit to drive, I nearly drove up the rear end of a parked car. Very shaken by this near disaster, I told my mom that she should take over, that I’d practice again the next day. She turned, looked at me quite seriously, and said, “No. You got yourself into this. You have to get yourself out of it.” Thirty-one years later, I am so glad she took that approach. Otherwise, I’d have to park my car and never drive a kilometer in the city of Riyadh.
You can keep your bungee jumping, your parasailing, and your thousand feet free climbs up the side of a cliff. When I want to get the old adrenaline flowing, I jump in the car and head off down the road here in Riyadh. Doesn’t really matter where I go…I can always find someone willing to make a left-turn – or, better yet, a u-turn – from the far right-hand lane. That one is especially effective when it is a large dump truck. I’ve successfully used that one a couple of times to jumpstart the old heart.
Another favorite exercise of mine for desensitization to fear is to attempt a merge onto a freeway. Unlike the courteous drivers of the L.A. freeways, where the drivers only edge forward and block your path into the slow lane, the drivers here in Riyadh will bump you from behind to remind you to bump your way in between the dump truck and the school bus. Several times.
One of the more fun games is trying to gauge whether or not you can successfully get around the car running parallel to you in the next lane over before the SUV behind you – the one flashing his lights and doing 160 KPH – will drive over the top of your Toyota Corolla (a gutless wondermobile if ever there was one).
I do mean, he, too. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. So, the freeways and streets are filled with enough testosterone to fill a NASCAR pit crew with Daytona 500 level energy. Testosterone, speed, and impatience. What a fine combination of characteristics to place upon a road full of multi-ton vehicles. Very exciting, indeed.
If you think I’m exaggerating…well…well, I’m not, so there’s no point in continuing down that road.
By far, my favorite traffic maneuver is what I have dubbed The Saudi Straddle. Apparently, indecision is widespread throughout the Kingdom, particularly when driving. Should I take this lane, or should I take that lane? Never mind that two full lanes of traffic are slowed and prevented from moving forward, there is no hurry to choose a lane. The Saudi Straddle, as with the left-hand turn or the u-turn from the far right lane, is most effective when employed by a large dump truck or other large service vehicle.
One of the guys who works for my company went to jail the other day for speeding. See, all traffic violations in the Kingdom not only have cash fines associated with them, but also a mandatory term in the clink. The guy from work got 48 hours. I cannot describe to you just how fast you’d have to be going to get pulled over in the first place. I’ve seen cars that had to be doing 180 whipping down the fast lane with their headlights flashing, cars in front of them (me on more than one occasion) scrambling to get the hell out of their way. Things are so bad on King Fahd Road – nicknamed Death Road according to one local – that the police are actually patrolling it, and they’ve added cameras to catch violators. There is an average of one death per day on that road, says my source. I am only hoping I can avoid being part of that statistic. I’ve seen a couple of nasty accidents on King Fahd, though, including a rollover in the slow lane that I am sure claimed a life or two.
The great fear among us Western expats is that we’ll return to our home countries, forget we’re back home, and start bumping cars because they’re waiting on that slow lane car to pass before entering the freeway. We’d probably only do it once, though.
Drive safely folks!
Copyright, Greg Hubbard, 2006.