Having grown up in the Middle East, spent time in the UK and otherwise travelled quite extensively, one can appreciate and be in a position to justifiably comment on the fact that there is a definite ‘art’ to South African (and African) driving.
My skills were honed early on in life after firstly passing my test in the UK and then taking to the roads of the Qatar (Death Race, eat your heart out!). Unless you have eyes in the back of your head, decent horn control and tempo and a firm grip on your road rage demon (not to mention advanced dodgem driving skills), foreign drivers in the middle east will more likely than not end up in some sort of accident; inevitably it will be your fault (unless of course you have taken to wearing Arab-like attire and can convincingly pass yourself off as a local). Fortunately, I had a chance to master most of these prerequisites (except the fancy dress part) and thankfully escaped any fender benders.
When I moved to South Africa, I decided the my first vehicle was to be a Navara. This was partly because I was used to driving 4×4 vehicles from my time spent in the Middle East, partly due to my better half requiring a car capable of towing a horsebox, and partly due to the fact that the majority of people in the UK drive around in small cars to save on petrol and emissions tax, i.e it is more affordable to own a bigger car in South Africa. This is definitely a decision I haven’t regretted as you are inevitably treated differently on the road when your are behind the wheel of a truck.
Without knowing anything about the local driving test standards, I am at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to scrutinising why local driving technique is so bad. My route to work takes me on two sections of highway which have recently been upgraded to a 4 (sometimes 5) lane carriageway and in the mornings this can get very busy. I understand that anywhere on the planet will inevitably have ‘middle lane sitters’ who, due to their insecurities attached with falling off the edges of the road into a infinite abyss, trundle along at a less than satisfactory pace in the middle, or even fast lane, of a highway. South Africans take this practice to an entirely new level and I’ve observed ‘less than satisfactory’ pace as extreme as 50kph in a 120kph zone. Come on people!
The ‘menu’ of bad driving skills/styles I have witnessed is diverse and extensive; here are some of my favourites.
- ‘O’ is for Obliviousness: ignoring cars who take up your entire rear-view mirror (for good reason), followed by horn honking and light flashing. These drivers can completely ignore death stares and obscene hand signals when you finally manage to overtake.
- Driving Miss Daisy: inability to steer in a straight line. These drivers have a ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ grasp of the steering wheel and feed it from side to side, whilst their vehicle follows a snake-like movement along the road. The vehicle occupies two lanes making it near on impossible to pass safely (these drivers usually have an added hint of obliviousness).
- Transformer – sports car in disguise: this can be observed in one of two ways. 1) A truck driver pulls out to take up a position in the fast lane whilst driving at a ‘less than satisfactory’ pace, thereby holding up the traffic behind but believing that because he/she is overtaking another vehicle whilst doing 1kph more than his/her counterpart, he/she is in fact driving a sports car! (Drivers usually seen to be hunched forward over the steering wheel). 2) A truck driver is literally driving a sports car (in the form of a truck) and will try to get maximum output from his/her vehicle whilst executing stunts at breakneck speed. It is entirely usual to find these trucks further along the highway holding up traffic after they have either broken down from the abuse, turned over because of the driver’s ineffective cornering technique, or with their cargo all over the road.
- Everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes that too!): Nissan 1400 bakkies (or equivalent) loaded to the nines with just about anything and everything which their occupants own. Where these vehicles go to no one knows, but they are usually found stationary at the side of the N1 highway with a police car (or two).
- How low can you go?: usual suspects include pimped out Tazzes, Citi Golfs or old skool BMWs with no drivers (or so it seems), until you notice signs of life in the back seat and/or the appearance of a flat peaked baseball cap from just above a reclined car seat. Urban flavours and heavy bass more often than not accompany said vehicles.
- Living on a prayer: these vehicles are SO OLD that they haven’t made an appearance elsewhere in the world since just after the Model T Ford was released by Henry. Vehicles are accompanied by acrid clouds of smoke, dented bodywork panels, and/or an accentuated crabbing motion and driven by a driver who falls into the middle lane sitter and/or obliviousness categories.
I could go on but wanted to finish on a high by acknowledging the taxi drivers of South Africa. I have never had to take a trip in one of their mini-buses, but these dudes take driving appreciation (and technique to a whole new level. Taxi drivers are completely dedicated to their clientèle and will go to great lengths in order to get you to your destination on time; making use of the full width of the road (and more), ignoring the general direction and flow of traffic, speeding, skipping traffic lights (robots) and driving over mini roundabouts; speaking on the phone to another taxi driver to exchange ‘best practice’ and finally, trying to talk their way out of a police fine at the side of the road for one of the aforementioned law-breakers. We salute you!