This week, Nadia El-Awady gives us the lowdown on Cairo traffic rules.
I’ve always wondered how one would explain the unspoken rules of Cairo traffic to a non-Egyptian trying to learn how to drive on the roads of our everyday craziness. Egyptians drive for years in Cairo and eventually get a feel for what must be done in order to arrive safely at our destination in the shortest possible time with minimal scrapes and dents to our cars and minimal loss of life. It’s not an easy feat. But we eventually get there.
My British khawaga husband Colin is spending a full month in Cairo for the first time. We both decided it would be good for him to learn how to drive here. In the process, I’ve discovered that it is possible to put our unspoken rules into words that are inevitably shouted out. I thought it would be useful to share my all-encompassing wisdom on Cairo traffic with a larger audience so I jotted the rules down.
Colin has an odd tendency to drive in one lane and to stay in it. He’s a khawaga. What can I say? His natural inclination is to keep driving at the same speed as long as he believes he has the right of way. With my eyes rolling, I have had to teach him rules number 1 through 3.
The concept of “right of way” is practically unknown in Egypt. If you drive on our roads using this concept you are likely to kill at least a dozen people before you reach your destination. We do have our own local version of right of way though. Larger vehicles have right of way over smaller vehicles. Pedestrians already walking across the street, despite the fact that they look like they are on a suicide mission, have the right of way. Cars that beat you by filling the gap in traffic you’re aiming for with the front of their car have the right of way.
ALL LANES ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL. There is a reason why one lane is moving particularly slowly. Do not feel loyal to your lane. If you do, you are an idiot. Get yourself into the moving lane no matter what it takes.
Never get caught in a lane where cars will eventually turn left or right, even if you’re one of the cars that plans to do so. You’ll get stuck in this lane forever waiting for the slow idiots at the head of the lane. Stay on the outside of this lane until you get as close as you can to the turn off point and then turn.
Almost anywhere in the world, new drivers are taught the 3-second rule: always keep a three-second distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. This rule is meant to keep you safe should the car in front of you suddenly stop or veer. This rule does not, I repeat does notapply to the normal downtown streets of Cairo.
THE NO-SECOND RULE FOR SLOW-MOVING TRAFFIC: Never allow gaps to exist in front or around you in slow-moving traffic. Rush to fill these gaps. This will get you to your destination quicker. People who do not fill gaps in traffic are idiots and take twice as long to get home as the rest of us.
BOOZ BASE: There is competition over the gaps in traffic. The general rule is that the car that manages to get its front into the gap first is the car that has the right to fill the gap. This means that the fronts of cars are frequently fighting over space. Learn the dance. Learn to win. And learn to be honorable when you lose.
I discovered over a dinner conversation with renowned Egyptian investigative journalist Yosri Fouda that he had a name for this rule. He called it qa3dit albooz or the rule of the front of the car. His English term for it is Booz Base.
Booz Base is only to be done with cars of similar size. Do not attempt it with busses or trucks until you have reached the level of expert Cairo driver and have the proper certification to prove it.
THE MILLISECOND RULE FOR AVERAGE-MOVING TRAFFIC: Always expect that the car directly in front of you might suddenly stop in the middle of the road for no obvious reason. If you are too close to it you will get stuck behind it or you will crash into it. What this means is that we actually do leave gaps between us and the car in front of us, just never a large enough gap for another car to do a Booz Base on us.
THE 10-SECOND RULE FOR FAST MOVING TRAFFIC: On the Ring Road, keep as much of a gap as humanly possible between your car and every other vehicle on the road. Some of the drivers on that Ring Road are fucking crazy!
When Colin drives, he looks straight ahead and sometimes looks into his rear-view or side-view mirrors. Driving that way kills.
UP, DOWN, AND ALL AROUND: As you drive, your eyes need to be looking everywhere;down for potholes and speed bumps, all around you for cars and pedestrians (you need to reach the stage where you know what their next move will be), and up for falling bricks from newly constructed buildings.
While going down an exit ramp from the Ring Road one night (actually every night), Colin almost drove head-on into an oncoming car. He wasn’t driving with that in mind as a possibility let alone the norm.
TWO-WAY ONE-WAYS: If you are on a one-way street or if you are going down an exit ramp from the Ring Road, never assume that all cars will be moving in the same direction. You are allowed to curse, yell, and make crazy hand signals at the idiot traveling in the opposite direction. But you should never drive as if no one will be.
Because Colin continues to drive with the Western concept of right-of-way in mind, he tends to get exceptionally angry when he comes face to face with a pedestrian weaving her way through heavy traffic. This anger has resulted in him making angry hand signals at them and trying to continue to drive without letting them pass first. A couple of times I’ve had to shout, “Colin!” in horror at the cultural transgression he just made.
RESPECT THE PEDES, BUT NOT ALL OF THEM: Do not wave your hands angrily or threaten to run over any crossing pedestrian who is not a man between the ages of 20 to 45. Women in general, women with children, men with children, children, and senior citizens are courteously stopped for so they can cross no matter how stupid they are acting by crossing in the middle of a busy intersection and despite the fact that they have just created an unnecessary bottle neck in the road. You can, on the other hand, curse, give angry hand signals, and pretend that you’re about to run over men between the ages of 20 to 45 who are doing the same. They deserve it.
Learn to read the body language of pedestrians. Pedestrians will look drivers in the eyes while they are crossing to figure out what their intentions are; do they plan to continue driving or to stop for the pedestrian? Drivers do the same. They look in the eyes of the pedestrian and study their body language and figure out what their intentions are. Based on this mutual studying of each other that happens in a split second – yes, Egyptians are that good – both driver and pedestrian mutually decide who gets the right of way through telepathy.
U-turns have three separate rules of their own:
If you want to make a u-turn into a busy street and the drivers aren’t giving you a break to turn, first attempt to Booz Base them. Ease the front of your car bit by bit into the road until you’ve forced a car to stop for you. If that doesn’t work, catch a driver’s eye, smile, and make the hand signal for “Would you mind, kind sir, if I turned in front of you?”
If you’re driving on a road that the cars are trying to turn into from a u-turn, avoid looking into the drivers’ eyes at all cost.
Parking is always a challenge in a city where there are hardly any specially constructed parking areas.
Never double park on a main street in Cairo. I have placed an eternal curse that covers this life and the hereafter on all drivers who double park. There is only one person who has been exempted from this curse and that is me. I’ve also placed an anti-curse intonation on myself as self-protection against other people’s curses. Don’t even consider it.
If someone blinds you with their high lights blind them right back with yours.
Honking is completely acceptable in Cairo. Give a little honk to cars that you are passing even if they are in a separate lane so that they know they can’t make a sudden move into your lane at that moment. Most drivers in Egypt don’t use their side mirrors so they would have no reason to notice you otherwise. Give a loud continuous honk to the idiots holding up a lane, the jerks who suddenly stop in the middle of the road for no obvious reason, and male pedestrians ages 20 to 45 attempting to cross a busy road.
Colin has been driving now in Cairo under my supreme guidance for two weeks. The man whonever honks at cars in the UK now does so in Egypt. He used to make fun of my road rage. I call almost every other driver on the streets of Cairo an idiot, for example. He now calls them idiots as well but has also resorted to referring to some of them as dickheads. I’m also hearing a lot of “flippin’ heck!”, which is apparently the word Scots use when they feel it would be impolite to use the other f word. It comes out as “ffffffff flippin’ heck!”
Disclaimer: the above rules are only to be used at your own peril. The writer cannot and will not be held responsible for any car accidents or deaths that result from the implementation of these rules.