Driving: The Art of Staying Alive

A Pakistani-American friend of mine recently returned to Riyadh after a trip to Pakistan to see family. The day after he returned, we went out for lunch and met up with the normal lunchtime traffic jam that afflicts the central part of the city during much of the day. We began our normal dodge and tussle routine, making the jokes we normally make about driving in Saudi Arabia, and my friend (who happened to be driving) said, “I am much happier to be driving here than where I’ve been driving the last four days.”

A shiver coursed through my body as I tried to imagine a more dangerous place to drive than in Riyadh. I mean, this is the place where we justify what normally would be considered rudely aggressive driving behavior by saying, “It’s OK, I have a Saudi Driver License.”

Which is true. In our company, once an expat has their iqama, they must then acquire an official Saudi Driver License. The license, and the third-party insurance required by law, cost roughly 600SR – about US$160.00. That’s a high price in the US, even more extravagant a fee in Saudi Arabia.

We tend to dwell on the aggressive and unpredictable driving habits – everybody’s favorite is the left-hand turn from ANYWHERE on the street. Routinely, those who are going straight on a street leave the left two lanes to those making left-hand turns; but that doesn’t mean a driver can let down their guard lest they be clipped by the guy gunning his motor and swinging around their car to make that left turn. Of course, not all these guys are stealth turners. Many of them pull their cars out in front of the block of vehicles stopped at the light and position their own autos in a roughly perpendicular position, indicating their intention to turn left in front of everyone else. Sometimes there are three or four cars cutting the queue.

What is so surprising, really, is how polite Saudis are in person. Inside an office building or store or mall or any other public place, the majority of Saudis are meticulously polite. It’s normal to offer to allow another person to enter a doorway two to three times before someone finally decides its OK to go ahead and walk through the door – sort of like determining who’s going to pay the lunch tab in Texas. But, get out on the street, and these men are completely different guys. Of course, it’s not just Saudis, lest I be accused of unfairly saddling our hosts with all the driving faults. There are a lot of expatriates from South and Southeast Asia who make the Saudis look timid by contrast. When I say dodge and tussle at lunch time, I’m not joking. Sometimes the Saudi Arabians look surprised by the behavior of some of the other drivers.

I won’t say that Western drivers are guiltless. No, it’s possible to see blond-headed men in sports shirts hitting 140 kph running down the left lane of the freeway, their headlights flashing. Of course, it’s more likely to see those same guys pulled over to the side of the road with a traffic cop scolding them and writing a ticket, which may or may not land the driver in jail. Non-Arabic speakers seem to have a much more difficult time when it comes to tickets, but especially when it comes to car accidents. Our company asks all its employees to immediately call the office and request one of the Arabic-speaking employees to show up on the scene if there is an accident. This is a very important and wise thing to do.

Just as perplexing as the driving habits, to me at least, are how the civil engineers laid out the roads. U-turns, for example, sometimes require a driver to go several blocks to execute such a maneuver – not because there are signs announcing a prohibition – rather because concrete medians run for that distance before a driver can find a place to turn around. On a trip to the camel souq, I found it necessary to drive 8 kilometers before I was physically able to turn around and drive by the camels on the same side of the road as they. Four-way stops are really four-way requests not to hit the guy who is turning in front of you – even if a cop is sitting in his car, watching the intersection. One thing I do like is the presence of frontage road that run immediately in front of storefronts, allowing the drivers on the main road to go forward unimpeded by cars backing out of parking spots or pulling out of parking lots.

They’re talking about making it legal for women to drive here. The rules would be such that only expat women, or Saudi women who’ve lived abroad, would be able to meet the stringent requirements necessary to acquire a license. Frankly speaking, issues of independence aside, I cannot imagine wanting to drive here if I didn’t have to do so. I’d sure hate to be a woman getting into an accident. I can’t guess how a female would convince the police she was not at fault even if she was sitting still at a stoplight and rammed from behind.

A lot of the problems with driving here could be solved if the police would enforce the laws. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Pity the career of the cop who pulls over the wrong car with the wrong inhabitants. They’re pretty unlikely to get shot, but their career could be dead, dead, dead. This has actually been discussed in Letters to the Editor in Arab News. There’s going to have to be a serious change in culture before that issue can be resolved.

Luckily, I’ve proven I can still drive at home without cutting off other drivers and turning left from the far right lane. Of course, I am gaining experience every day. There’s still time to teach myself some new bad habits.

Copyright 2007, Greg Hubbard

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