An Outsider’s Guide to Driving in Egypt

Bringing back to America the concepts of no lanes, no crosswalks, no driving tests, and all about madness on the roads of Cairo.

4 min. read

I’m writing this from the back seat of cab heading from downtown Cairo to Zamalek.  My driver just smashed a side view mirror off another cab. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this. In fact, my record so far in one cab ride is three accidents. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The traffic in Cairo is a truly amazing site. It’s either a complete jam, or wide open. I’ve yet to experience anything in between, nor to learn how to anticipate which it will be. I’m already 20 minutes late for a lunch meeting (sorry, Farida!), but I’ve been assured that by “Egyptian time” standards I’m quite alright. I initially thought the lack of promptness here was an artifact of the generally laid-back culture, now I see it as more of a psychological survival tactic.

Traffic. Is. Chaos.

Last night I was told that fatalities by car here are in the top per capita worldwide (Number one! Number one! Number one!). I haven’t fact-checked this, nor do I plan on it, but I have little doubt in my mind that it is true. Here are a few reasons why that might be:

  • There are no lanes here. Well, there are technically, but pragmatically they do not exist. I’m on a road right now that in the US would be two, three lanes max — but we are currently rocking four cars wide with a couple motorcycles and one happy-looking donkey thrown in.
    • The motorcycles do what they want. Not just weaving between cars (obviously they do that) but also driving on the sidewalk (slowly, usually) and going against traffic (sometimes).
    • Pedestrians are everywhere. On the street. Walking between cars. Pushing giant carts of food through insanely busy roundabouts. Walking in front of full speed cars making them brake so they can cross the street, but that one is basically necessary because…
    • There are no crosswalks. I was in Amsterdam right before coming here. Talk about night and day. There are so many pedestrian crosswalks there I wasn’t sure I was ever allowed to move without a little green walking person saying so. I haven’t seen a single crosswalk here. You have to make your way across the road in the spirit of one of my favorite amphibious games as a kid — only you don’t have three lives.
    • There are no stop lights. Again, there technically are, but I’ve never seen one beings used. They just sit there at intersections, un-illuminated, like comedic voyeurs of hot, rough, car-on-car action.
    • Everyone is honking their horn, all the time.  There are no less the eight horns honking as I write this sentence.  Four AM, no other cars on the street, people are still driving in front of the hostel honking their horn. The horn has completely lost its stopping power. I’m convinced that Drivers Ed here is “This is thur horn. See the horn? Honk the horn.”
    • People drive without their headlights on at night. Having the lights on is considered rude.
    • Everyone bribes the license bureau for their license. Again, not sure this one is true, but I’ve been told a few times that 10 – 20 Egyptian pounds (about $2) trumps a drivers test here. And if that’s true, I’m even more impressed. Because as a non-bribe-required-licensed-driver I would be terrified to get behind the wheel on these roads.

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I’m still in the cab, 15 minutes later, not even close to my destination (Aasifa, Farida!), on a drive that yesterday at exactly this time of day took no more than 12 minutes. Cars are honking all around me. Two people to the left just got in an accident and are yelling at one another (which is customary, before getting back in their cars and driving along, nothing else having happened), and there is a 10-year-old boy walking a rack of bread through this highway traffic.

Shit we almost just hit that kid.