Monday, November 08, 2010

Driving in Dubai

I honestly never saw myself as one of those people who drives a car in foreign countries. I thought that maybe it was one of those things that American moms don't do (though I did know an American lady in Moscow who had some serious skill in a Subaru Outback). Then in Jordan, I met a woman at church who had four kids and a minivan and she drove it around Amman herself. In Egypt, I met still more moms with kids who drove in that crazy city.

And now here I am in the UAE, driving around with my kids. I didn't think I would be capable of it but it turns out it's one of those things that you just dive right into and DO.

So far, the things that I love about driving in and around Dubai are the flexibility and the unpredictability. With the very great exception of speeding, the driving rules around here are very flexible. (On speeding - there are speed cameras all over the place and the best part is that you don't get your ticket in the mail. It just shows up as a fine the next year you go in to renew your registration. Lovely.) If there's no one around in a traffic circle, feel free to drift into a more comfortable lane for taking the turn. Stop signs can sometimes be yield signs if you feel like it. Road shoulders can be their own lanes. Empty fields can be parking lots. Heck, lanes of traffic can be parking lots if you really need it.

As for the unpredictability, tell me it isn't thrilling to never know what the person driving in front/back/to the side of you is going to do next. I see people do some variation of the cut-across-seven-lanes-of-highway-to-juuuuuust-barely-make-that-exit so often and it never ceases to amaze and terrify me. Just go to the next exit, dude. But still, it's an interesting mix of admiration for the sheer amount of guts it takes to pull off a move like that, and fear that it will be me they're cutting off someday (note: IT WILL).

If it weren't for the fact that we are in daily mortal peril from people driving like morons, driving in Dubai is like the world's greatest real-life amusement park ride. It also builds confidence and character. While driving around I often encounter situations that I would never attempt by choice. But when you're going 100 kph and you need to merge, move over five lanes, and then do a U-turn, choice doesn't have anything to do with it. I admit that there are times I pull off an especially difficult driving maneuver and it may have looked all finessed, but Jeremy could tell you all about the wince/grimace of terror I had on my face the whole time. But I do it, and each success builds more confidence for the next unexpected encounter.

Now, integral to all of the above are traffic circles, aka roundabouts. Let's talk about roundabouts, for lo, they are legion. They are also INSANE. Take a look. This roundabout sign makes me laugh every time we pass it. And we pass it a lot because we have yet to make the right spoke selection the first time around.
Out of control, no? I do think roundabouts are an effective traffic control device but that doesn't make the practical execution any easier. Roundabouts usually have multiple lanes, as seen here:
To enter and exit the roundabout without crashing, you have to think ahead. Are you taking the first exit? If so, feel free to use the right lane. Otherwise, you need to get into one of the inner lanes, but not too inner so you don't get stuck when it's time to exit. Regardless of what lane you're in, watch out for people on the inside cutting in front of you to get out, and people on the outside not exiting when you think they will.

But you can't spend too much time and energy on guessing the moves of others. If there's one thing I've learned since driving around Dubai, it's that you have to take care of yourself. Sometimes taking care of yourself involves making rash, sudden, intensely defensive driving decisions. But you make them all the same, because you have to hope that everyone else out there is taking care of themselves. Otherwise, the system doesn't work.

To the extent that there is a system, anyway. And assuming that it works.


irslan2u said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amber said...

This reminds me a little of driving in NYC, minus the total flexibility. However, there are crazy obstacle in NYC, especially in the outer boroughs. In some places the subway is actually above ground, supported by huge steal posts that suspend it over the roads. The posts are situated in between lanes, so changing lanes requires not only planning around other cars, but also navigating around the posts.

The other thing that reminded me of NYC was the comment about highly defensive driving. I did things driving in NY that I would never do in most other parts of the country, but that's because I was taking care of myself, just as the other drivers were taking care of themselves! The thing that always surprised me was how few accidents there were considering how very many cars were on the road and how crazy the driving was! It is the same in the UAE?

Liz Johnson said...

I really, really, REALLY love this post. It reminds me of driving in Mexico City. We actually had one of those humongous roundabouts right by our house (4 lanes across and 8 different entry/exit points) and it was always insane. And the beauty of it was that the ENTERING car had the right-of-way, not the people already in the roundabout. So you just basically dove right in, made lane changes as necessary, and got out. Occasionally I had to go around more than once, but I got pretty darn good at it.

In Mexico City, though, speeding laws aren't obeyed or enforced (unless the cops are just trying to get some $$ out of you), so they put speedbumps everywhere. Like on main roads. Hilarious.

I'm convinced that people driving in Mexico City (and probably Dubai) are better drivers than US drivers because they PAY ATTENTION. You can't just assume everybody is going to obey the laws and chat away on your cell phone or eat a Big Mac while you drive. You have to be completely alert, always looking out for what drivers might do next, assuming somebody is going to cut you off at any second. You are ALWAYS on your toes, with aggressive defensive driving.

And that is where I learned to drive. I still am always on the lookout and planning twelve steps in advance no matter what.

Lilianne said...

Have you seen National Lampoon's European Adventure with Chevy Chase? The way you described the roundabouts totally reminds me of a scene in that movie where Clark Griswold (Chevy) gets stuck inside a giant roundabout in Paris and just keeps driving around and around and around for like three hours! It's hilarious.

This sounds a lot like driving in the Philippines! At any given moment, you could stick your hand out your window and touch the car next to you. It was nuts - but ironically, there were very few accidents. I guess everyone is a seriously defensive driver there! Way to go for getting out there and just digging in! I couldn't even drive in Washington, DC for months because I was terrified. That place is nuts - but in a whole different way!

Bridget said...

Liz, I thought of you as I wrote this because actually I think you were the first person I met who had a lot of experience driving overseas. And you were what, 18? I can't believe it! YES, the drivers (in general) tend to drive smart even if that translates into some crazy maneuvers. It's intelligent recklessness.

The closest thing I've driven in in the US is probably Boston. WOAH. Though DC frightened me as well.

JosephJ said...

And yet, I feel like you meant to say "you have to make intensely offensive driving decisions." As in, to get around, you have to cut folks off occasionally and make things happen.

As an aside, whenever Jen has to drive in a high stress environment (like a Boston rush hour), I urge her to forget about the guy behind her. Take care of what's in front of you, and let the guys behind you take care of themselves. They'll let you merge if you're already headed into their lane!

Bridget said...

Let's call it "aggressive defensive driving." Does that work? You are so right about the merging technique - that was the first lesson I learned. Nobody will ever let you in, ever, if you wait for them to do it.

Craig said...

JosephJ's comment is right on. Driving in Amman, Jordan, is a total thrill ride, and so satisfying, if stressful. You learn that the person even one inch ahead of you has "right of way". And you have to be bold and assertive yourself when you have that "inch".
I love roundabouts. They are so efficient for moving traffic.

Crys said...

I mean this with all sincerity and no sarcasm...YOU ARE A BRAVE WOMAN! Just reading that post my stomach clinched up into a nice tight knot!

Steven said...

How much turn signal I need to cut across eight lane? None? Okay, I turn now! Good luck everybody else!!

elliespen said...

Yes, I worry about my husband potentially going into the State Department for this very reason. I dislike freeway driving here in the States, and that's pretty tame compared to overseas driving. (I remember when we went to Paris and the first thing our hotel shuttle driver did was to turn right from the far left lane across four lanes of Parisian traffic. Ah.) I admire your bravery and skills!

The Harker's said...

You're a brave woman Bridget.:) Just caught up on your blog, and I have loved reading about everything you are doing. I am glad your housing situation has turned out so great. We miss you here in Ithaca, and now I am the one getting very emotional about leaving this place next month. You'll have to fill me in on all the great places to go and visit in Oregon and Washington.:)

Liz Johnson said...

Bridget, I was 15 (a sophomore in high school) when I started driving in Mexico City. I still think about it and get all giddy.

Also, are the lanes super narrow in Dubai? That was another "issue" we had in Me-hee-co.

Kristen said...

Wheeee! Looks like fun. And I love your Rav4, good choice.


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