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.