8 Tips on How to Drive in Cairo and Other Parts of Egypt
P lease allow me to give you some straightforward advice pertaining to how to drive in Cairo:
Really — do yourself a favor and do not attempt to drive in Cairo. That is my advice to you.
If you are still here reading this, you are probably wondering why I give such blunt advice. Either that, or you are a glutton for punishment.
I just had the distinct displeasure of doing something I would have been most likely advised not to do — and that is to rent a car in Cairo. The plan was simple enough: drive from the airport to a hotel property near the site of the pyramids and the Sphinx; drive there the next day; drive to stay at a different hotel property in Cairo itself; drive to Hurghada to enjoy some relaxation by the Red Sea at several resort properties; drive to Luxor to take in some of the treasures there; drive back to Hurghada for more relaxation; drive back to Cairo to stay one more night; and then drive back to the airport to return the rental car. I even mapped my routes in Egypt on Google maps.
Easy, right? I have done this countless times in at least 20 countries — greater than half of which I drove on the opposite side of the road than to what I was accustomed, such as in Mozambique — all over the world over the years. Some of those countries in which I had driven had very aggressive drivers with whom I had few problems sharing the road.
Forget that — as well as plans A, B, C and D. I had no idea of the experience which awaited me.
It all started with the rental car — I intend to detail that experience in a separate future article — and I had not yet exited the airport when people are casually crossing the road in front of me as if I were not there; other cars brazenly nudged me to the point where they were literally only inches from the car I drove as they were speeding; and the road itself was poorly marked with few signs and rough pocked pavement.
Things will get better when I drive on Ring Road, I thought to myself. Ring Road is Cairo’s equivalent to the Beltway in the District of Columbia or the Perimeter in Atlanta, as it is a highway which forms a “ring” around the city. Little did I know that there were two Ring Roads — an outer “ring” and an inner “ring” — but I drove onto the correct Ring Road to head towards 6th of October City near the pyramids.
First, if there were any markings on the pavement, they were so faded that no one could see them — and even if they could, they were ignored anyway. Cars formed as many as six lanes — it seemed like a whole lot more — onto what I believe was supposed to be four lanes in one direction.
Drivers were constantly honking their horns to let others know that they were either speeding or sidling up to other motorists — some of them coming what I believed was dangerously close. Overloaded trucks which looked like they were about to tip over struggled to move in the left and right lanes as cars and motorbikes zipped around every which way. Standing next to piles of garbage literally eight feet tall were vendors who sold their wares — food, tires, etcetera — in what should have been the right lane of the highway. White vans would stop in the paths of speeding cars to pick up or drop off passengers; while three-wheeled motor carts would effortlessly zip quickly down the highway — going in the wrong direction, which happened more times than I would care to count. Dump trucks and other large vehicles also traveled in the wrong direction — entering highways using exit ramps, for example. Remnants of concrete barriers which at one time divided the highway lay literally crumbled to rubble in the center median.
If they were not so sad, some of the sights I saw would be comical. There was that family of five — one of them a baby held in its mother’s arms — all riding on one motor scooter and darting in and out of traffic. There was the car passing a vehicle which was passing a truck — taking up three lanes in the oncoming direction which included the lane in which I was traveling — while the driver in the car behind me was flashing headlights and honking the horn wanting me to move when there was nowhere for me to go. All of this was occurring on what seemed like deteriorating infrastructure.
I honestly felt like I was in a live video game — but I did not want to lose. At all. Never…
…and so I was constantly operating on intense concentration on everything that was going on around me. Watch for that speeding motorcycle about to pass you in that narrow area on the right. Look out for that pile of garbage. Get around that truck which is moving at the pace of a snail while trying not to be in the way if its load decides to topple. Beware of that donkey pulling that cart as three people are dodging traffic while crossing the elevated road. Move over, as there is a deep pile of sand drifting in that lane just ahead.
It did not help that lane markings were non-existent and ignored. It did not help that some of the road signs — as few as there were — were primarily in Arabic. The knuckles remained white as my keen sense of direction had to kick in at times while the mayhem continued all around me. Whatever happened to traffic laws?
When I exited Ring Road onto another highway towards the pyramids, two of the lanes were unusable because they were literally covered with soft piles of sand, which were being blown by the wind, creating miniature sand storms. That did not stop some cars from plowing through them anyway even though this particular highway had little traffic.
The impressions resulting from my experiences driving in Egypt caused me to think that perhaps many of the drivers are unnecessarily reckless — but here I was, immersed in their culture. Who am I to question what they do and how they do it?
Tips for Driving in Cairo and in Egypt
While other parts of Egypt are certainly easier to drive than in Cairo — the city of Qena is a notable exception, which is arguably worse than Cairo in terms of being a motorist — they are not necessarily easy; so here are some general tips pertaining to driving in Cairo and in Egypt based on my experience:
1. Don’t Stop
This secret tip comes from a relative of mine who was once a taxi cab driver in New York; and he gave me that advice years ago for driving in Manhattan. That advice never failed me — and it greatly helped me in Cairo as well. With my nod to Soul II Soul, keep on moving — don’t stop.
2. Never Lose Your Concentration
Allowing your concentration to become lax while driving is never advisable; but to do it while in Cairo is a potential recipe for disaster. It is quite fatiguing; but when driving in Egypt — especially in cities such as Cairo and Qena — you must always know what is going on around you at all times. Remain aware of your surroundings, as you never know when a vendor will appear in the lane in front of you or a truck will be barreling towards you going in the wrong direction. The fact that the difference in speed between aggressive drivers speeding in cars and trucks inching at a snail’s pace is so great that you have to constantly figure out how to avoid collisions does not help matters any — and the moving roadblocks could be in any lane.
3. Do Not Give an Opening
If there is an opening, a motorist will take it. Period. End of story. It matters not how large or small is the opening; nor does its shape matter either. Openings allow for motorists to randomly cut you off — usually at a high rate of speed before stopping short because the vehicles ahead have stopped or someone is walking across the highway as though he or she is on a secluded walkway…
…and if there is any room between your vehicle and a barrier, a motorist will attempt to drive through it.
4. Forget About Lanes and Create Your Own
Drivers in Egypt either do not know how to maintain lanes — or perhaps they purposely choose not to maintain lanes. Even when there is no other vehicle nearby, the driver will inexplicably meander between lanes or straddle them.
As unnatural as this may seem, this will force you to abandon the concept of lanes yourself. Seek openings to maneuver around virtual rolling roadblocks — such as overloaded trucks — and unforeseen impediments in the roadway if you ever hope to successfully move forward.
5. Not Using Directional Signals
In a land where blinking lights seem to be everywhere — on buildings and boats plying the Nile River as two of many examples — it still puzzles me why most motorists in Egypt fail to use the blinking lights which truly matter in terms of driver safety: the directional signals on their cars. Realize that the use of directional signals is uncommon and expect drivers to dart around the highway with no indication as to where they will go or turn next.
6. Left Turns and U-Turns
Unless you are fortunate enough to encounter a traffic circle, left turns are usually accomplished by turning right onto a road and then making a U-turn into the other direction. This maneuver often can consume a kilometer or two — and sometimes several kilometers — before you are headed in the correct direction. Egyptian drivers have been known to create their own short-cuts — dirt mounds over a divider of a road, for example — in an attempt to save time and yet create more road hazards and dangerous driving conditions. There are few traffic signals and traffic control devices in Cairo and other areas of Egypt such as Hurghada; so proceed simultaneously with caution and aggressiveness.
7. Speed Bumps
Except on certain highways, speed bumps are prevalent everywhere I went in Egypt — especially where U-turns are permitted, as the speed bumps are designed to slow down and break up oncoming traffic so that it would be easier for drivers to complete the U-turns. Motorists will drive as fast as possible — only to abruptly stop once approaching a speed bump. Some of them are small enough to drive over with minimal impact; while other speed bumps seem to be as large as the pyramids.
8. Roadblocks and Checkpoints
Due to political turmoil over recent years — most notably, the revolution of Egypt in 2011 — roadblocks and checkpoints manned by police and military personnel are everywhere in Egypt. A highway will often be narrowed to one lane in each direction with metal or concrete barriers combined with multiple speed bumps designed to slow down vehicles enough where they can be surveilled by armed personnel assigned to the roadblocks. Aggressive drivers will jockey for position to take advantage of one of the aforementioned openings to get ahead of other cars in the line to pass through a checkpoint by driving on sand or up on a curb to pass and get to that opening.
Mere words simply cannot paint the picture of my experience driving in Cairo and other areas of Egypt, which can resemble a nightmare from which I wanted to awaken while it was happening. When I asked the general manager at one hotel property why Egyptians drive the way they do, he attempted to explain several times before finally admitting that “I have no idea why they drive like that.”
One explanation could be the aforementioned political turmoil over recent years — which would naturally render the chaos of driving on the roads of Cairo and other areas of Egypt insignificant. After all, driving in Cairo often seemed like literally being in a war zone — and perhaps I am not far off from reality with that thought. Another factor could be poverty, where residents are simply doing everything they can just to get by. Whether those and other factors can be considered legitimate reasons for the deplorable driving conditions on the roads of Cairo and other parts of Egypt is debatable — but they may be contributing factors just the same.
The saddest part of the way people drive in Egypt is that it is so inefficient that they do not get to their destinations significantly faster anyway, putting themselves, their vehicles and the lives and vehicles of others unnecessarily in jeopardy — but as long as there is little enforcement of traffic laws, the zany and aggressive driving practices of motorists in Egypt will continue.
You will most likely be better off either using public transportation, taxi cabs or hiring drivers to take you where you need to go in Egypt; but if you do decide to drive in Egypt despite my attempts to dissuade you from doing so, realize that it is quite taxing and tiring — and ensure that you have plenty of insurance on the vehicle which you plan to drive.
I now realize the source for the word Cairopractic: because driving in the capital city of Egypt can be a real pain in the neck…
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.