November 20, 2005

Driving

When I first arrived in Beirut I thought Lebanese drivers must be among the worst in the world. They don’t stop at red lights. They drive the wrong way down one-ways. Seat belts are verboten, and the concept of lanes is utterly alien. Speed limits? No way. Traffic circles are unbelievable clusterfucks. Stop signs are suggestions that translate into “slow down just a tad if it’s not too much trouble.” The soundtrack of the city is an unending cacophony of blaring car horns and screeching tires. Busses take up two lanes by themselves, and trucks pass slow cars in oncoming traffic around blind corners. It’s terrifying at times and maddening the rest of the time. Driving on icy mountain roads in January must really be something.

Then something new happened. The whole system just clicked. Rent a car and drive these streets yourself for a while and all of a sudden you can predict what first seemed like deranged and psychotic behavior. Behind every seemingly-crazy driving maneuver is a purpose. The key to predicting what other drivers will do is to ask yourself what you would do if there weren’t any rules and you were guaranteed not to hit anybody. Then you can relax and play the game.

It is a game, really. There are winners and losers. You must drive offensively. If you don’t you’ll be a hazard because others will have no idea what you’re going to do. You have to fight for space. There’s a point when both you and the other driver knows who has the right of way. It’s he or she who has the most guts.

You have to trap people. That’s how it works. To fight for space you position your car in such a way that if your opponent doesn’t tap on his brakes he will hit you. Then you win. Then you get to go. Your reaction time – and therefore your driving skill – grows exponentially after you’ve played this game for a while.

I’ve been driving my mother and my brother all over this country for several days in a row. I grok Lebanon’s traffic flow now. I’m cool with it. I’m one with it. It’s much more fun than driving in orderly Oregon.

Sometimes it just makes more sense. If you’re sitting at a red light and there is no cross traffic at all, why must you sit there and wait for the green? Only because a cop will bust your ass if you don’t. There is no other reason. But here the cops couldn’t care less. If it’s safe, just go. Other drivers don’t mind. They’ll honk at you and they’ll yell at you if you just sit there. You’re blocking traffic! That’s not efficient.

Today we drove along the six-lane coastal highway north toward Beirut during a rain storm. Some of the deeper dips in the road were totally flooded. So the drivers ahead of us turned around and came at us in our own lane. (They couldn’t make u-turns because the highway is divided.) All of a sudden I saw headlights coming straight at us – and fast. Okay then. I stopped the car and turned around in an instant. Drivers behind me saw what I did and did the same. The entire highway did a perfectly safe about-face and started moving in the reverse direction toward the nearest exit. We all got off the flooded highway and took a higher and drier road on the side. Traffic kept flowing. Nobody got hurt. The same situation in the United States would have started a traffic jam that backed up for miles and lasted for hours. Even during the evacuation of New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina people only drove on one side of the Interstates. Nothing like that would ever happen in Lebanon. In Lebanon such fates are averted. It’s efficient. It’s safer than you think. And it’s fun.

My brother thinks it’s fun, too. “I know how to drive in this country,” he said before he ever sat behind the wheel of a car in this country. I handed him the keys and he drove perfectly without needing even a minute of practice. That’s because he rented a car and drove all over Argentina, where driving works much the same as it does here.

My mother nearly has several heart attacks on the road every day. “If I lived here I guess I just wouldn’t drive,” she said more than once.

“Sure you would,” I said. “Once you get used to it, it’s totally fine. I prefer this system of driving, to be honest.”

And I do. I really do. Sometimes I still shake my head at some of the crazier moves I see some drivers make. Other times I can’t help but laugh out loud at their audacity. That probably won’t change. All cultures have their outliers, after all, people who push things too far. I have no doubt, though, that when I get back to the States and get stuck at a red light when I’m the only one on the road, I’ll feel like a sucker and a sheep oppressed by the police.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at November 20, 2005 11:52 AM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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