Traffic fLaws

Feb 2, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   culture, long, photos  //  1 Comment

Osten­si­bly, in Afghanistan, traf­fic dri­ves on the right hand side of the road. How­ever, this rule is leniently applied. In Afghanistan the road is used for dri­ving, and if the left hand side of the road is open, a dri­ver will take it.  Today while cruis­ing down the lane of oppos­ing traf­fic, we had to edge back into the reg­u­lar flow to pass a check­point. The guard was angry.

Why were dri­ving on the other side of the street??” He demanded, accord­ing to Najib’s translation.

What did you tell him?” I asked.

That I had for­eign guests in the car! [Refer­ring to us]” Was the answer.

I saw one dri­ver in Kabul even drive up onto the side­walk. No small com­mit­ment because the street is sep­a­rated from it by a 2 foot deep ditch so he’d have to drive the length of the city block before get­ting back. Still, the road was full of cars honk­ing but the side­walk only had pedes­tri­ans on it– and they learn quickly to get out of the way.

Jalalabad Road

Crane recov­ers fallen truck on Kabul High­way. (Todd’s photo)

With all this chaos you’d think that there would be lots of acci­dents. And you’d be very right. The road from Kabul to Jalal­abad winds down gorges for miles before open­ing up into the plains of Nan­garhar. This is where 16,000 British Troops and their fam­i­lies were noto­ri­ously slaugh­tered in their retreat from Kabul in 1842. One lone sur­vivor, Dr. Bry­don, made it out of the val­ley to Jalal­abad. As the story goes, the Afghans let him sur­vive so some­one could tell the tale. Mean­while, today the gorge is not dan­ger­ous because of IEDs or Afghans shoot­ing from the hills but because of hor­ri­ble dri­ving. Dr. Baz Moham­mad, the direc­tor of the Pub­lic Hos­pi­tal told me that in this year already there have been 1400 acci­dents and 300 deaths on that road. He knows because many of the patients treated at his hos­pi­tal are vic­tims of those crashes. (The Afghan cal­en­dar starts on the Ver­nal Equinox, and so these fig­ures cover 9 months of acci­dents, not just 1.)

The main road in the city of Jalal­abad has a divider down the mid­dle of it, in a futile attempt to keep traf­fic on its own side of the road. Often it works, but it’s cer­tainly not uncom­mon to see a vehi­cle dri­ving the wrong way on your side of the bar­rier. They’re com­mit­ting to dri­ving against traf­fic, act­ing on the assump­tion that traf­fic flow­ing against them will all spot them in time to swerve around their oncom­ing car.

Inefficient Traffic Cop

There are no road signs in Jalal­abad. Dri­vers indi­cate they are pass­ing by honk­ing loudly. No on uses left or right blink­ers as turn sig­nals, but it is locally under­stood that flash­ing your blink­ers means you plan on hurtling straight through an inter­sec­tion, regard­less of oncom­ing traf­fic. The only street­lights in the city are found at one par­tic­u­larly busy traf­fic cir­cle in the mid­dle of town. They aren’t pow­ered. Instead, a cop with a shrill whis­tle and a stop sign the size of small diner plate stands in front of the lights, wav­ing his sign men­ac­ingly while being thor­oughly ignored by the cars fight­ing to get by. Round­abouts are com­mon here, and dri­vers usu­ally go the same way around them. Not always.

directing traffic

Tak­ing a turn, espe­cially a left-hand one, is not for the overly car­i­ous. Cars will not let you turn unless you give them no other option. The only way you’ll be let into the flow of traf­fic on a busy street is if you get the hood of your corolla nosed in far enough that cars can’t swerve around it. The rule of the road is that you never give up space to any­one if you can’t help it. This includes budg­ing an inch for the army truck with 4 men hold­ing AKs in the back try­ing to wedge its way into traf­fic. No excep­tions given. When we rid­ing in the Teach­ing Hospital’s Ambu­lance (they sent it to the Taj for our ride) its dri­ver turned on the siren in a vain attempt to push faster through traf­fic. The siren had lit­tle effect. It could barely be heard above the honk­ing of horns, not that peo­ple would have heeded it if it had been louder.

5 lanes of traffic

Five lanes of traf­fic? This is a two way road with one lane in either direction.

Park­ing is also hap­haz­ard. There aren’t really park­ing spots down­town so much as there are gaps between food carts where you can stash your car for a while. The cops, Mehrab told me, don’t give tick­ets because “no one would pay them.” Instead, they go around with a screw­driver and take the license plate of cars parked “ille­gally.” (The vast major­ity of parked cars here would qual­ify as this in Amer­ica.) That way, dri­vers have to go to the police sta­tion and pay to get their license plate back. The fee is nom­i­nal, but the has­sle of hav­ing to pick it up is sup­posed to deter.

Oregon Plates

Most cars are bought on auc­tion in Amer­ica (after hav­ing been totaled) imported and repaired. You often see plates from CA, MA, TX, and even from Canada.

The odd­est acci­dent I’ve almost got­ten into involved a van div­ing in front of us whose wheel popped com­pletely off the vehi­cle. Maybe the nuts weren’t tight­ened, oth­er­wise they were rusted com­pletely through because the whole tire with its wheel popped off the axle and flew across the road, into oncom­ing traf­fic, smashed into the front of a car going the other way, and ric­o­cheted back into our lane. Najib slammed on the brakes as the tire bounced across the road in front of us. Mean­while the dri­ver of the van had man­aged to keep con­trol and pull it over to the side, undam­aged if you don’t count the miss­ing tire.  The car that took the brunt of the tire seemed to have a smashed front light, but lit­tle other dam­aged. And we cruised between the two stopped vehi­cles, head­ing into town.

  • Glen­cora Roberts

    The pine tree license place on that car came from Ore­gon! Hope you are all doing well, you seem to be hav­ing some good adven­tures and doing some good work.