Driving: Compete or Cooperate?
I recently returned from three weeks working in Egypt, spending at least 4 hours each day travelling to and from a work site, a passenger in a car operated by my friend/colleague Ahmed, a young Egyptian engineer. We were staying in a hotel near the northern end of Cairo, but our work site was one hundred kilometres to the south, in the desert a few kilometres east of the Nile River. Each day we encountered traffic conditions varying from city gridlock to high-speed highway travel to village roads used to move livestock.
As someone with more than just a passing interest in driving behaviour, I saw these long, tiring trips as an opportunity to observe how people from another culture – one that is very different from ours – behave behind the wheel. I wanted to see if I could learn something. For three weeks, I took notes, recorded video clips, and peppered Ahmed about what I saw.
Being a driver (or passenger) in Egypt is not for the faint of heart. Speed limits don’t really apply there, other than the 120 km/h highway limit that pretty much everyone adheres to. Speed in populated areas is controlled using speed bumps, speed humps, and dips, and they work very well (especially the dips).
Lane markings are merely a suggestion; the actual number of traffic lanes at any given time or place is determined by the number of vehicles that can fit side-by-side. What we call a three-lane marked road here can, in Egypt, accommodate four or five lines of traffic; more if the cars are small, less if there are big trucks present. And this number changes continually depending on traffic flow. [This brings up an interesting observation on efficiency for our traffic engineers to consider.] Drivers weave back and forth, jockeying for position, at times mere inches from other each other.
I watched in awe as pedestrians, young and old, able and infirm, crossed several lanes of fast-moving traffic without any semblance of fear.
After being immersed in the Egyptian driving experience for a while, I began to wonder why I didn’t see more fender-benders, crashes and general carnage. Even with the high traffic volumes and congestion, I didn’t see road rage or anger.
Then it dawned on me: Egyptian drivers don’t compete, they cooperate. They’ve figured out that it’s better to work together than to work against each other. They’ve realized that they have to share the road with each other.
This driving… paradigm, if you will, whether planned or emergent, has produced some interesting effects. The thousands of Egyptian drivers I saw have reaction times and situational awareness that would make a race car driver jealous and put the average North American driver to shame. The average Egyptian driver can navigate in a tight pack, mere inches from others at speeds that made me cringe. And, a good percentage of them do it with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a cell phone to their ear. Their ability to spot speed bumps in the dark, at a considerable distance, is downright amazing.
The degree of communication between Egyptian drivers is orders of magnitude higher than in North America. Drivers there communicate and indicate their intentions using a variety of methods: horn, headlights, high beams, turn signals, hazard lights, and hand signals. There is a constant flow of information between drivers; by comparison, the communication network here is virtually silent, punctuated only by the occasional blaring horn, withering stare, or raised finger when a wrong is perceived and outrage expressed.
The ‘Egyptian driving method’ can, somewhat simplistically, be reduced to the following rules:
· Drive as fast as you’re comfortable with
· Don’t hit anyone
· Don’t get mad
It all comes down to attitude. Sure, I saw many minor conflicts over a patch of road but, as Ahmed pointed out, “It’s a lot easier to say I’m sorry.” A hand raised, palm facing forward, means just that. Conflict resolved. When I described the relatively common North American practice of purposely blocking another driver who’s trying to merge into your lane, Ahmed shook his head in disbelief, abhorrent at the concept. The North American driver’s default attitude of “Me first”, “Every man for himself”, and “I’m gonna teach that guy a lesson” appears downright sociopathic by comparison.
Arriving home from my last trip and having to suffer the drive from YVR out to the ‘burbs, I was immediately reminded of how different driving is here. Drivers expected everyone but themselves to obey the rules of the road. Traffic roundabouts, a relatively new form of traffic control in BC, provide a good example of where we are on the cooperation-conflict spectrum.
The rules for entering a roundabout are simple: you slow down on approach and yield to traffic already in the circle. If drivers using a roundabout cooperate, traffic flows more efficiently than if the intersection were controlled by stop lights or stop signs. However, when drivers compete, as many here do, the game changes: the goal is to beat other drivers and get into the roundabout as quickly as possible, to stake one’s claim. Me first. Conflict is frequent and expected.
I’m not suggesting we all throw out the rules and drive like Egyptians (although that would make for an interesting experiment) – according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Egypt’s traffic death rate is twice that of Canada’s. (It should be noted, however, that 80% of Egypt’s traffic deaths are caused by heavy truck drivers.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned.
Maybe, just maybe, if more drivers here tried to cooperate more and compete less, who knows what that might lead to… A less stressful drive? Lower collision rates? Cheaper insurance? Fewer injuries and deaths? That’s something we each should think about when we get behind the wheel.