Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Worst Drivers in the World?

Whenever westerners travel to developing countries they comment on how crazy the drivers seem. Few people can forget the experience of crossing an 8 lane street in Chengdu, driving in a Rickshaw in Thailand, or racing down a mountain road in a yellow school bus in Guatemala.

I've now been to a number of countries that lay claim to the world's worst drivers and in my opinion the quiet, unassuming people of Central Asia take the prize. Never have I felt so scared to step onto a street. The drivers are so bad that we've actually planned parts of our trip around what drives will be required.

In China for example many drivers are inexperienced and unskilled but there is a form of cooperation. If I as a pedestrian walk into a Chinese street all of the traffic will flow around me. It is incredibly nerve-wracking, but you can cross a busy street in China by slowly making your way across one lane at a time. As long as you keep moving predictably you will not be hit, although as a foreigner I always tried to keep a Chinese person on the upstream side of me as an extra precaution.

In Central Asia, they will run you down without even touching the brakes.

As far as we can tell there are two rules of driving here. The first rule is to assume that no matter how unpredictably you drive, other people will stop for you. If you miss a turn just lam on the the brakes and reverse down the road, or do a U-Turn across 3 lanes of traffic without even shoulder checking. The important thing is to act like you are the only vehicle on the road. The second rule is to never slow down or attempt to avoid another driver. If somebody steps into your way just honk and keep going. If they don't move, run them down like a dog. Don't swerve. Don't slow down.

We are very scared to cross streets here. There are no pedestrian crossings and often not even traffic lights at big intersections. People drive as fast as they can, and driving after a few bottles of Vodka is still pretty acceptable. We've even seen police officers having a good piss-up at lunch time. Traffic is also highly unpredictable. People will do U turns unexpectedly and parked vehicles will suddenly reverse down the road when you thought they were safely asleep. Uncovered manholes add to the excitement since you have to watch the pavement almost as closely as the traffic. Death can come from any direction at any time and Kyrgyzstan has the traffic fatality statistics to prove it.

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