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Monday, 18 January 2010

Driving in Egypt - Your Wits or Your Life

Driving in Egypt

Following on from my diatribe about the taxis in Hurghada it struck me I had rather a lot of thoughts about driving here in general.

If you are from Europe or North America you will already know that tour operators DO NOT RECOMMEND car hire in Egypt. Sometimes you sit at home after you’ve booked your holiday and wonder why. You think it surely can’t be that bad.

When I first came to Egypt I was working as a Tour Leader/Holiday Rep for a British holiday company. It was made clear to me at the beginning that I would have to drive. I looked after 6 hotels – 3 in Hurghada and 3 in El Gouna. I had to travel twice a day from the southern end of Hurghada to the northern end of El Gouna, a distance of about 55 km. Obviously, walking was not an option and the bus service was not reliable enough. Hence I was given a car. Before I came it was stressed to me that arriving and then changing my mind about driving would not be permitted.

I have to say, I really wondered what all the fuss was about. I am English and am used to certain ‘rules of the road’ being obeyed by all (or at least 90%) at home. However, I have driven in many countries where British people generally consider the standard of driving to be a little less than desirable. I had just completed 6 months on the Greek island of Lesvos where I had also had to drive around 140 km per day. The driving there was crazy enough – surely Egypt couldn’t be any worse.

After nearly 21/2 years I have to admit I am now undecided whether or not it’s worse, but it’s certainly very different. My first impressions were that driving here was like a cross between go-karting and dodgems with no rules.

There IS a driving test that has to be passed before you get a driving licence. However, it is nowhere near as thorough as the test in Europe. Here you are asked a couple of very simple questions about the rules of the road (yes, there are actually rules and they are written down somewhere but you’d never guess from observing the way drivers behave here). This is a verbal test. If you answer correctly you get to do the practical straight away. For the practical you go to a disused piece of tarmac where you find half a dozen traffic cones spaced out in a straight line. You have to drive forward slaloming between the cones. Once you reach the end you have to put the car into reverse gear and do the same coming back. As long as you don’t knock any of the cones over you walk away with your driving licence. That said, if you know the right people and don’t mind making sure they’re alright you can get your licence without ever being inside a car. A couple of my friends have licences and have never driven!

It’s also necessary to understand how things work on the roads here once you have the licence. Here’s a quick guide:

In theory speed limits do exist here. There are periodic checks by police who operate hidden cameras along popular main roads where speeding is predominant (usually not the inner city where it poses more of a threat though). You can tell when they are doing this because somehow word gets out and everyone is crawling along. The fine is quite expensive (only the equivalent of around 15GBP/$12US but if you only earn 200GBP a month it’s a lot) so most people do try and avoid getting caught. Some go to extreme measures to avoid the fine. Typically, there is a roadblock about 1km down the road from the hidden camera. The camera transmits your licence plate to the police at this roadblock. However, nothing is saved. If you never arrive at the roadblock you effectively get away with it. The police know this and are very clever about where they set the traps and roadblocks (no turn offs between one and the other). I have seen people get stuck in the desert trying to avoid the fine. They realize they’ve been spotted and turn off the road attempting to go round the roadblock over the sand hills. Those lucky enough to have a 4x4 usually make it but the saloon cars don’t! You need to realize here that Hurghada sits right on the edge of the desert and is effectively a town built on an area of reclaimed desert. Speed can be a particular problem in the inner city. In the main streets here it is not unusual to find cars and buses travelling at speeds of around 120kmh. It is rare to find speed controls in these areas.

Everyone in Egypt has to be first – or at least they drive as though they do. Many of the roads in Hurghada, even in quiet residential areas, are effectively ‘dual carriageways’ with a barrier (a very high kerb) down the middle of the road. There is space for two lanes, sometimes 3. Drivers here have no hesitation in hurtling at breakneck speed up behind other vehicles and squeezing through the gaps effectively creating 3 or 4 lanes of moving traffic.

The problem with this system is that there have to be u-turn areas because you are not able to simply come to the end of the road and turn left (driving is on the right here). So, even if your destination is to the left you have to turn right. You then need to seek out the u-turn to change direction. Egyptians are impatient and worried about the cost of fuel (less than 1/10th the cost in the UK) so always like to take the shortest route. They feel able to ignore the nicety of following the direction of flow. They WILL turn left and go against the flow to find a u-turn opening where they will rejoin the correct side of the carriageway. Fines for this are very heavy but I have never heard of anyone being caught even though everyone does this.

We do have traffic lights here. These are actually well designed and have a countdown visible to drivers. When the light goes green there is a green counter counting down the time until the light will be red. Then there is a red counter until it goes green. I’m sure you get the picture. However, you need to understand these are not meant to be obeyed. They are only part of the street decoration. Most traffic lights also have a pedestrian light. Just like Europe, if it’s red you are not supposed to cross. Here you cross when it goes BLUE. But, in the same way that drivers ignore the lights, so do the pedestrians. Crossing the road here can be quite hazardous and requires particular vigilance (as a Tour Leader I once had to attend hospital to see a guest who was crossing the main tourist shopping street and was knocked over by a car!). Once you get the hang of it, though, you are usually able to weave a path through the fast-moving traffic.

In Hurghada the lights are mostly placed at roundabouts. This is another area where rules apply but are not followed. This can make negotiating a roundabout very confusing. I found the best method was just to concentrate on where I wanted to go and to go for it!

Driving is on the right but overtaking can be on either side. If a vehicle is in front of you and you want to pass it you check out which side has the wider gap and simply speed up and pass through it. Also, driving is on the right but if the road is more than one carriageway wide drivers tend to stay wherever they like (after all, Egypt is proud of being a free country). They even sit very often right in the middle, neither in the left-hand nor the right-hand lane, allowing vehicles to pass them on both sides at once. I suppose this could be thought of as being considerate to other road users.

There are some controls for the car that are also used differently here.

Horns are an absolute must and are used continually. If you were to disconnect someone’s horn they simply wouldn’t be able to drive. Horns are sounded whenever there is anyone or anything within visual distance. They sound the horns at traffic, pedestrians, anything at all that moves. Even, if there is no hazard involved the horn still has to be exercised in case it gets fat and becomes unfit for purpose. They have the horns customized to play songs and catchy tunes.

In contrast, lights are an optional extra. They are not always used at night. Some drivers, though these are very few, do use dipped headlights at night. A few more use sidelights. However, the great majority of drivers within city limits drive around at night with no lights at all. This means they can use the lights alongside the horn when they want you to know they are around. Crossing the roads at night can be a problem because you can’t properly see some of the cars that don’t have their lights on until they flash and beep at you.

Indicators are required but not to show that you wish to turn. They are mostly used only in 4-way mode when slowing down. Drivers here have to slow down often because most of the roads have ‘sleeping policemen’ embedded in them. I’m sure this is because the authorities know what the standard of driving is really like and want to slow people down a bit. It works to a limited extent. However, slowing down means using the 4-way warning lights. At least this does make sense and is useful if you are the one behind.

So, it’s easy really. Just get used to the idea that everyone is living in a free country and doing exactly as they want on the roads and join in. You’ll soon get the hang of it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OR perhaps better to think again and decide NOT to hire the car after all.

Oh, and if you DO decide to hire that car, remember the road is also shared with donkey-drawn vehicles and free-roaming goats in certain areas of town. They, of course, have complete right of way.

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