November 11, 2009

Drive Me Crazy*

We have decided not to get a car here in Abu Dhabi. At first, it was for practical reasons. Why get a car when taxis are (supposedly) readily available and quite affordable? It seemed like short-term, it wasn't a good use of resources.

But now, the reason we won't get a car is the traffic.

Imagine an entire city populated by 16-year-old boys who have just received their licenses and are driving SUVs. Now you can begin to picture Abu Dhabi. Drivers give no quarter. They are extremely aggressive. The goal is to be the first one to the next light. And then there's the honking. You honk if the person in front of you stops too quickly (nevermind that you are the one tailgating). You honk if someone doesn't go *before* the light changes. You honk if you even suspect someone might want to get into your lane. Sometimes, there is no obvious reason for the honking.

Presumably all the drivers here have driven in their home countries. Presumably, too, the rules of the road are similar. Yet most other countries do not have the reputation for dangerous roads that the UAE has.

The blocks here are very long, and there is often no way to cross except at the light. This makes jaywalking desirable, and terribly dangerous. To thwart jaywalkers, the traffic authority has placed wrought iron barriers with pointy tops along the medians, to keep people from crossing the median on foot. But in the places where one is allowed to cross freely, there are always people darting across the road. And I swear drivers speed up when they see pedestrians, just so they can swerve and honk. It's crazy. And as traffic backs up, it is common for pedestrians to try to cross between cars. Most of the major streets are four lanes on each side, so it's kind of tricky to cross, even when the cars are stopped.

And because the blocks are long, the only way to get to the other side is to make a U-turn. U-turns are very big here. And it makes crossing against the light especially dangerous. So when crossing, you have to look out for the right-hand turners as well as the U-turners. The crossing light, in theory, saves you from the U-turn drivers. But you're on your own for the right-hand turners.

There are merge lanes on the right side of the road where the side streets intersect. In most of Europe, the traffic on the right has the right of way. That never happens here. It is not unusual for two cars to try to turn right at the same time. And then, for some inexplicable reason, they stop dead. Drivers don't wait until the way is clear, and they don't go fast enough to get out ahead of the oncoming cars. On the other hand, you will never see an oncoming car slow to let the merging car in. He will always speed up.

Paul says it's clear the taxi drivers do not own their cars, because they abuse the transmissions by going into overdrive between lights *my brother-in-law Alan says the proper term is "kickdown."

And the other reason not to have a car is parking. That is truly something to see. There are parking areas between the main streets and behind the buildings and shops. Cars park diagonally, as in a normal lot. But cars also parallel park in the middle, between the two diagonal lanes. And sometimes there is a double line of parallel parked cars, making passing quite difficult. This does not keep people from using the parking lots as streets, either.

The whole thing makes driving in Italy, or New York City, or even Hong Kong, look like child's play.

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