Driving over here was my main concern before we arrived, and it was justified!
The roads are absolutely insane. When I got my car, I decided to keep driving until the fear wore off…..6 hours later I was still driving around with sweaty hands and the shakes!
Back in England I was a very confident driver and probably among the more assertive people on the road. Looking back, although I didn’t realise it at the time, being so assertive was something of a defence strategy as it gave me space on the road. I certainly found that bombing along motorways at 85mph gave me a nice space around me which few other cars penetrated, and I used to find driving more stressful on occasions where I was forced, for whatever reason, to stick to motorway speed limits. (I should add that I don’t condone speeding, and don’t speed on other types of roads in the UK).
I was also an advanced driver, and member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, and had been taught and practised many defensive driving strategies, which I consolidated with a more agressive driving course through a private tutor to prepare me for Qatar.
I’m not boasting, but trying to paint a picture of how confident a driver I was.
Over here, none of that counts. If I wanted to be the most assertive person on the road in Qatar, I would have to lose all sense of my own fate and drive way beyond my capabilities, so I am left fairly near the bottom of the food chain as a result.
Outside my comfort zone, I am reduced to a bit of a jibbering wreck, although I am getting more relaxed! Only in the past week have I been able to listen to music in the car – before that my concentration was too intense to cope with any more stimuli!
Here are some specific examples of why it is so stressful to drive over here:
The first example which springs to mind is one which I have just witnessed out of the window. Our apartment overlooks a French school. At this time of day, the road grinds to a halt as hundreds of cars descend on the street and try and parallel park outside the school.
I just heard some hooting, which isn’t exactly unusal in Qatar, but this was particularly frenetic, so I looked out of the window to see two Landcruisers getting VERY impatient with the traffic in front of them.
As one of the school mums dared to let a car out of a space ahead of her, the first Landcruiser finally lost whatever shred of patience he had left, and pulled out onto the ‘wrong’ side of the road, with the other Landcruiser behind him following suit.
There was oncoming traffic, but this didn’t stop them. Neither did the fact that kids were pouring out of the primary school straight into the road (did I mention that this manoeuvre took place just behind a pedestrian crossing outside the school?!).
There then ensued a Mexican standoff between the Landcruisers and the oncoming traffic, while kids scattered for their lives all around, and naturally, the Landcruisers won – they have right of way over here- before they sped off into the distance.
I say sped off, but actually for some reason the locals seem completely unable to navigate speed humps without stopping dead in front of them, so it was more of a crawl and didn’t actually get them past the school any quicker than the traffic next to them on the right side of the road.
In another example of impatience, I have a habit of taking my foot off the gas if there is a red light ahead of me (approach hazards slowly, leave them quickly). In Doha, this doesn’t go down well. Everyone, regardless of nationality, approaches hazards at high speed and leaves their braking until the last minute. Yesterday, I witnessed (with a wry smile on my face) as a bloke behind me went absolutely ballistic at me for going so slow on the approach to a red light. He was cussing and shaking his hands at me. If I could work out why, I would have adjusted my driving accordingly to let him do whatever it was that he wanted to do, but I could see absolutely no reason for his desire to go faster, so I just watched him with amusement in my mirror (and of course left him for dust when the lights turned green).
You can have some fun with this. As you approach a red light, ease off the gas and show a brake light to the cars behind you, and watch them scatter like mad into the other lanes. You will end up gently cruising to a halt in one of the shortest queues, while the other drivers, in their impatience, will have joined much longer queues in neighbouring lanes.
I am still trying to weigh up the best way to deal with this culture – I am reluctant to start accerating towards slow traffic and hitting the brakes hard and late, as is the done thing in Doha, but I am also conscious of the need to adapt my driving to local conditions and not to wind other drivers up. Sometimes you do need to leave your braking quite late, otherwise any gap you leave will get filled by other cars, so it’s a case of assessing the road conditions and driving accordingly, although this can make for an uncomfortable ride for your passengers.
A mix of cultures
The main reason for all of the problems on the road here seems to be the clash of cultures, so there are no unofficial rules to get you through. For example, in Italy, the driving is insane, but nearly everyone on the roads is Italian and therefore you can at least predict how they will behave in any situation, according to their unwritten social code.
Here in Qatar, I could cope a lot better if the only other cars on the road were Qatari. Yes, they are absolutely mental as drivers, but they are actually quite skilled; they have to be to pull off some of the high-speed manoeuvres you will witness. I suspect that a lot of their frustration stems from their country being invaded by so many immigrants with different driving styles anyway.
But the reality in Qatar is a melting pot of different driving cultures. Some immigrants come from remote areas where they will have had little experience of cars or traffic, let alone city environments.
The Europeans struggle because we are used to a culture of rules and orderliness, and our lack of flexibility in this respect can make us as much of a hazard in this environment as any other cultural group.
Thankfully, and this is going to sound horribly racist, but it’s generally true – you can predict a driver’s nationality and therefore driving style by the car.
Landcruisers are top of the food chain. They are generally driven by locals, and you learn pretty quickly to get out of the way, or let them in the queue ahead of you. They are driven at exceptionally high speeds, generally, and they will come up behind you flashing their lights and hooting at you if you don’t let them pass you. They have no qualms about taking an offroad route to cut out a traffic jam and barge their way in front of you, or use the wrong lane to pull off a traffic lights manoeuvre, or drive across kerbs to get to where they need to go. If you have an accident with a local, I have heard that you don’t stand much of a chance of proving that the accident wasn’t your fault.
Europeans tend to drive other 4WDs – if you need to break your way into a queue, I always pick on a white person, as they are sure to let you in!
Tata buses, construction trucks, and Nissan pick ups need to be given a wide berth, as the driving is nearly always completely erratic and unpredictable and I have yet to see an exception to this.
Roundabouts here are absolutely terrifying, especially when turning left or going straight on. Thankfully, the Government is aware of the accident stats and is gradually removing them and replacing them with traffic lights.
I know someone who was taught to drive over here, and apparently they actually teach you to take the ‘lane of least resistance’, regardless of which direction you intend to take off the roundabout. As you approach the roundabout, everyone is shuffling lanes trying to find the shortest queue. For those who wish to turn right, this will involve a last minute dash across the lanes to get to the right-hand feeder lane, if there is one – otherwise they will just join the roundabout anyway, and barge their way across to their exit once they are on the roundabout.
For turning left, I will usually take the left hand lane, but on busy roundabouts this can lead to a big stress in trying to get back over the right again to take your exit. I have been almost forced into an underpass wall by a Landcruiser intent on trying to block my exit. Many cars in the right-hand lanes will be going further around the roundabout than you, so you might end up circling a roundabout twice or more in an effort to try and make your exit.
The middle lane on a roundabout is always stressful, because you will have people on your right intent on getting all the way around the roundabout and preventing you from making your exit, but you will also have people on your left trying to cut across you to get to their exit.
If I am taking the first or second exit, I stick to the right hand lane, as I then only need to keep an eye on one wing mirror. If I am turning left, or making a u-turn, I take the left hand lane and take any opportunity I can on the roundabout to try and move over for my exit, but if I fail I just keep going around it until I am successful, watching both wing mirrors intently!
If all fails, I just get off at a different exit and revise my route – Doha is built on a grid system (just like Milton Keynes!) so there is always an alternative route…….. if only the other drivers on the road would realise this, instead of trying to force their way across lanes of traffic to get places!
Traffic lights and u-turns
Doha’s roads are all at least 3 lanes wide in each direction. There are no single-lane roads, apart from the back streets behind housing complexes or shops.
I can see the logic behind this, but I do wonder if in reality it actually has a negative effect on traffic flow.
There are no refuges in the central reservations for getting across oncoming traffic into side roads, so if your destination is on the ‘wrong side’ of the road, you have to progress to the next traffic light or roundabout and make a u-turn. This increases traffic at junctions, and it also means that traffic lights have to be sequenced carefully to allow u-turns, so only one flow of traffic has a green light at any one time. As a result, you can easily wait 10 minutes at traffic lights waiting for the full sequence to run through.
There is no amber light, so the lights go from red to green very suddenly. After 10 minutes of waiting, you can be half asleep by this point, but you will soon be woken up by the cacophony of hooting horns behind you if you dare be as much as half a second late in hitting the gas pedal. I’m not being frivolous – half a second is all you will get!
If you go across a traffic light junction in the right-hand lane, you have to run the gauntlet on the other side of the lights of traffic joining your lane from the right, at very high speed from the right-hand feeder lane of the other road.
Another perilous situation can arise if you turn out of a side road onto one of Doha’s triple-lane roads, and need to be going in the other direction (so you need to make a u-turn at the next junction). You may need to have your wits about you in order to get across to the left hand lane before the next roundabout/traffic lights. Sometimes you will fail and end up having to go to another roundabout/traffic lights to make your u-turn.
Quite often at traffic lights, the left hand and u-turn lane is separated from the other lanes by a solid kerb. This is no obstacle to a Landcruiser driver and they will fight their way into their lane of choice with little regard for minor obstacles such as kerbs or Nissan Tiidas.
I can forgive any of the above situations, but one thing I will never get used to seeing is how children are carried in cars over here. Europeans seem to be the only group on the road who strap their children into their car.
I saw a chap yesterday driving with a 2 year old on his knee. I also saw a lady in the passenger seat of another car with a 3 year old on her lap.
You will witness these sights in almost every car around you. Kids can normally be spotted climbing around the back seats, if they’re not loose in the front.
The stats speak for themselves. The roads are more dangerous here and you are 6 times more likely to be involved in an accident than in the UK.
The death rate is much higher too, but I suspect that this is due to the number of people not wearing seatbelts. When I went to get my visa processed, I was in a people carrier with 4 or 5 Indian and Bangladeshi women and I was the only one who put my seatbelt on.
I am all for trying to avoid forcing British values on other cultures, but this is one area which does make me want to scream. Fair enough if adults want to put themselves at risk, but I do not understand how people can put their children in such danger. I can’t explain it. Do they not understand the risks, or not care? Is it part of an Insh’allah culture? But even if you believe that it is God’s will whether or not your child lives or dies, surely you want to help stack the odds in their favour and save yourself from unimaginable pain?
It is easy to try and impose British values on the driving out here, but you have to be careful in doing so. Yes it is nice in England where there is an unwritten code which we all stick to in a predictable way, but that’s been ingrained in over 100 years of driving culture, and it doesn’t mean that those same unwritten rules could work elsewhere.
The Qataris wouldn’t appreciate arrogant Brits telling them to do things their way, any more than we would appreciate being told off for our drinking culture going against Muslim values.
I will continue to use my indicators and exercise good lane discipline, but I’m not expecting anyone else to follow me! You also have to keep in mind that many of the nationalities driving here do not have 100 years of driving culture engrained in their psyche.
The World Cup is probably going to have some effect. Kim Clijsters publicly criticised standards of driving here after being injured on her way to a tennis match in Doha last year.
Given that the culture can’t be changed overnight, I think the Government is going to have to take the lead by clamping down on things. There are already plenty of speed cameras around, but they could honestly do with more, especially hidden and average speed type cameras. I wouldn’t say this in England, but over here it’s hugely important, as the speeds that some cars travel at is absolutely terrifying and they need to put an end to it. These are big cars which can do a lot of damage if they hit you.
And, unlike Britain, I do feel that the speed limits need to be LOWERED here – 80kph is too fast for built-up areas.
It goes without saying that they need to crack down on strapping children into cars properly.
The major, planned public transport projects will also get some more cars off the road (especially the less confident drivers who cause a lot of frustration to the Landcruiser types).
Social iniatives and campaigns, such as this student project, are widespread, but seem to be having little effect.
At the end of the day, we have to recognise that this is a culture where being pushy gets you what you want (not patient queueing!) and this is not going to change, so the best that can be done is to enforce driving regulations more stringently to try and manage it, especially when ‘soft’ techniques such as educational campaigns will not cut the mustard in a country with so many immigrants from all over the world, many of whom are illiterate and/or don’t speak either Arabic or English.