Driving In Cairo:
An Adventure Not To Be Missed
It is true.
If you can drive in Cairo, you can drive anywhere. But, the experience is not as daunting as it first appears to be. In fact, it could be fun. I have driven in Cairo several times, and have also been in the front seat of taxis and private cars. Apart from the odd moment when something I did not expect actually happened, I felt reasonably safe both as a driver and passenger. Once I got the hang of it, it was fun.
I have not witnessed any serious car accidents in Cairo, most incidents are minor nudges to the paint work, that ended up with drivers saying "Ma'lesh" and drove off. These incidents usually involved novices who could not control their cars even at slow motion. Car insurance is a requirement in Egypt, but many drivers drive without. This may change soon, as the government is planning tough measures to control bad driving habits and also protect the environment from old obsolete cars.
There is a kind of common understanding amongst drivers in Cairo. They all seem to agree that there is no lane discipline, and no rules for pedestrians. Traffic lights are optional when a warden waves you on, and double parking is no offense. Horns are used at all occasions, and are not meant to anger anybody. To a Cairo driver, pedestrians are mere nuisance, to be avoided but only as long as they do not slow the car down, or make it stop. Zebra crossings, therefore, are not safe havens, and should be used only when the road is clear.
The first few moments behind the wheel in Cairo are worse than sitting for a driving test. Take it slowly and carefully and just go with the traffic. Sometimes, you can not help but go to the lane that happen to be vacant at the time. If that happens, and you suddenly want to turn right, across three lanes of traffic, do it carefully by double signal: that is an indicator and your hand at the same time. It seems an impossible task but is usually managed with ease by consummate drivers. In the first journey, though, you may have to go the end of the road and back.
On the rare occasion when you have the road to yourself, do not speed up. Some cars come up from side roads without stopping. At night, some cars go without lights. On those upper roads cress crossing Cairo, beware of the youngsters with powerful cars. If you see one in your rear mirror, swerving from one lane to another, just get out of their way. The same applies to buses and army trucks. If you want to argue your right of way, please choose a Fiat 500, or a Suzuki.
The only driving lesson you need in Cairo is taking a taxi journey as a passenger watching the road and the driver's reactions. You will notice a fierce competition for the limited space, with cars edging closer and closer but whoever has a car nose in front has the right of way.
The horns would be going mad, the stern expressions of drivers would rattle the inexperienced. But, the situation is soon diffused by one driver following another, as if he was planning that manoeuvre all along. You would notice also that drivers rarely look at each other, for if they did they would be obliged to give way. The same rule applies to pedestrians. If they cross the road looking at the wrong direction, they are more likely to get away with if than if they look at drivers. If a driver knows you can see him, he will not stop.
Your international license gives you the right to drive in Egypt. Most international car hire companies operate at the major airports and hotels. The rates are comparable to those applicable in Europe, and are slightly more expensive than in the US. But before you hire a car, make sure that you have a parking place for it. Parking may be easy if you are staying in a hotel out of town, say in Heliopolis or the Pyramids district or Maadi, but in the centre of Cairo, a car is a liability.
However, the risks increase considerably outside Cairo, on the roads to Alexandria and the Red sea resorts. Care must be exercised at all times. The pitfalls are many: pot holes, sudden turns, bad lighting, lorries overtaking, poor driving abilities and speeding motorists. There are plans in the pipeline to make Egyptian roads outside Cairo safer, until these are in place, it would be wiser to take a coach or a train journey and leave the car behind. I have driven on some of those roads, and have seen bad accidents.
The main factor which makes driving in Cairo relatively safe is the slow pace of traffic. After a nervous start of driving in Cairo , a driver would be inclined to unbuckle his seat belt and try the horn a few times. You may indulge your horn, but never be tempted to compromise your safety even if most others do. Belt up, drive carefully and keep a watchful eye on both sides of the car as much as to the front.
Driving in Cairo is an experience to be proud of, just as much as seeing the Pyramids or doing the Nile cruise. In fact, those who have driven in Cairo deserve a certificate of advanced motoring that would entitle them to an insurance discount.
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Last Updated: July 26th, 2011
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