VIEWPOINT - Driving: Compete or Cooperate?

MegaphoneI’ve spent most of my 40+ years of driving in Metro Vancouver, but have also had the opportunity to drive in major cities in England, Greece, Egypt, and France. When I return from these trips, I’m always amazed at the level of hostility on our local roads. With the traffic density in these foreign cities much higher than in most North American cities, I expected to see a lot more hostility amongst drivers. What I’ve found, though, is the opposite. Here’s an example…

I recently returned from three weeks working in Egypt, spending at least 4 hours each day travelling to and from a work site, a passenger in a car operated by my friend/colleague Ahmed, a young Egyptian engineer. We were staying in a hotel near the northern end of Cairo, but our work site was one hundred kilometres to the south, in the desert a few kilometres east of the Nile River. Each day we encountered traffic conditions varying from city gridlock to high-speed highway travel to village roads used to move livestock.

As someone with more than just a passing interest in driving behaviour, I saw these long, tiring trips as an opportunity to observe how people from another culture – one that is very different from ours – behave behind the wheel. I wanted to see if I could learn something. For three weeks, I took notes, recorded video clips, and peppered Ahmed about what I saw.

Being a driver (or passenger) in Egypt is not for the faint of heart. Speed limits don’t really apply there, other than the 120 km/h highway limit that pretty much everyone adheres to. Speed in populated areas is controlled using speed bumps, speed humps, and dips, and they work very well (especially the dips). Lane markings are merely a suggestion; the actual number of traffic lanes at any given time or place is determined by the number of vehicles that can fit side-by-side. What we call a three-lane marked road here can, in Egypt, accommodate four or five lines of traffic; more if the cars are small, less if there are big trucks present. And this number changes continually depending on traffic flow. [This brings up an interesting observation on efficiency for our traffic engineers to consider.] Drivers weave back and forth, jockeying for position, at times mere inches from other each other.

I watched in awe as pedestrians, young and old, able and infirm, crossed several lanes of fast-moving traffic without any semblance of fear.

After being immersed in the Egyptian driving experience for a while, I began to wonder why I didn’t see more fender-benders, crashes and general carnage. Even with the high traffic volumes and congestion, I didn’t see road rage or anger.

Then it dawned on me: Egyptian drivers don’t compete, they cooperate. They’ve figured out that it’s better to work together than to work against each other. They’ve realized that they have to share the road with each other.

This driving… paradigm, if you will, whether planned or emergent, has produced some interesting effects. The thousands of Egyptian drivers I saw have reaction times and situational awareness that would make a race car driver jealous and put the average North American driver to shame. The average Egyptian driver can navigate in a tight pack, mere inches from others at speeds that made me cringe. And, a good percentage of them do it with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a cell phone to their ear. Their ability to spot speed bumps in the dark, at a considerable distance, is downright amazing.

The degree of communication between Egyptian drivers is orders of magnitude higher than in North America. Drivers there communicate and indicate their intentions using a variety of methods: horn, headlights, high beams, turn signals, hazard lights, and hand signals. There is a constant flow of information between drivers; by comparison, the communication network here is virtually silent, punctuated only by the occasional blaring horn, withering stare, or raised finger when a wrong is perceived and outrage expressed.

The ‘Egyptian driving method’ can, somewhat simplistically, be reduced to the following rules:

  • Drive as fast as you’re comfortable with
  • Don’t hit anyone
  • Don’t get mad

It all comes down to attitude. Sure, I saw many minor conflicts over a patch of road but, as Ahmed pointed out, “It’s a lot easier to say I’m sorry.” A hand raised, palm facing forward, means just that. Conflict resolved. When I described the relatively common North American practice of purposely blocking another driver who’s trying to merge into your lane, Ahmed shook his head in disbelief, abhorrent at the concept. The North American driver’s default attitude of “Me first”, “Every man for himself”, and “I’m gonna teach that guy a lesson” appears downright sociopathic by comparison.

Arriving home from my last trip and having to suffer the drive from YVR out to the ‘burbs, I was immediately reminded of how different driving is here. Drivers expected everyone but themselves to obey the rules of the road. Traffic roundabouts, a relatively new form of traffic control in BC, provide a good example of where we are on the cooperation-conflict spectrum.

The rules for entering a roundabout are simple: you slow down on approach and yield to traffic already in the circle. If drivers using a roundabout cooperate, traffic flows more efficiently than if the intersection were controlled by stop lights or stop signs. However, when drivers compete, as many here do, the game changes: the goal is to beat other drivers and get into the roundabout as quickly as possible, to stake one’s claim. Me first. Conflict is frequent and expected.

I’m not suggesting we all throw out the rules and drive like Egyptians (although that would make for an interesting experiment) – according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Egypt’s traffic death rate is twice that of Canada’s. (It should be noted, however, that 80% of Egypt’s traffic deaths are caused by heavy truck drivers.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned.

Maybe, just maybe, if more drivers here tried to cooperate more and compete less, who knows what that might lead to… A less stressful drive? Lower collision rates? Cheaper insurance? Fewer injuries and deaths? That’s something we each should think about when we get behind the wheel.

I agree with you. Most drivers here DO have a "me first" attitude, which co-exists with their beliefs that driving is a right, (not a priveledge, and a HUGE responsibility) and that they are gifted with better than average driving skills. How do you show someone that their logic is flawed, their beliefs are incorrect, and their abilities are not what they presume?

I spent quite a few months in Kampala, Uganda, and the traffic in Uganda is like your picture, times 10. I have no idea what the accident and death rate is there, (pretty high by my observation and experience) but it is remarkable how much traffic is moved by such little real estate, and it all happens without anger and frustration.

And your demographic on truck almost polar opposite to the one in North America, where vehicles over 14,500 KG cause a small percentage of accidents.

That was a thought provoking article, well done.

I've spent most of my professional life in driving related endeavours including riding my bike an average of fifty miles a day when I had a rural paper route in the late 60's in Cumbria UK, thinking back. I received my Class 3 in BC back in 1983 (added Class 4 shortly afterwards, and Class 1 about 20 years ago; and have also had my Driving Instructor license for more than 30 years now).

So the first thought that comes to mind, is that - generally speaking - we tend not to notice the other road users out there who are patient, courteous, and cognizant of the need to share the space we're all using to go about our business. And this applies to pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers, bus drivers, and truck drivers. We frequently don't notice the 'good' drivers because ... well, they're good drivers!

And you know, as popular as it is to knock Vancouver drivers, it seems to me that we pretty much invented zipper merging - it's been happening on the approaches to the car strangled spanner (a.k.a. the Lions Gate Bridge, with a nod to Denny Boyd for the phrase) for decades and the only folks who don't seem to 'get it' are the tourists. Even the boors in their BMWs and Audis manage to figure it out, though they may be too stupid or lazy to actually use signals most of the time.

As for regulations - something we have a ton of, compared to the Egyptians - it's a whole different culture apparently. They seem to compete with India to set the lowest possible standard of competence. And both countries have horifically high crash rates - particularly with buses and trucks - causing terrible injury and death to the road users who are the victims; frequently, these are pedestrians. Or cyclists. Or donkey-cart drivers.

Incidentally, I just found this interesting pedestrian related item on Wikipedia so I thought I'd throw it in.

Last September, I was in England visiting my siblings, and enjoyed driving there once again, as well as in Ireland which was a first for me, although I've driven in several other countries. I was struck (not literally) by the way that their roads and behaviours have developed over not just decades, but centuries (millenia, even!) into the current era. So just on a 30 mile drive through the countryside, it will occur numerous times where drivers need to pull to the side (might be amongst the hedgerows, might be in the middle of a village) to allow the oncoming driver(s) to proceed - and every time, every driver given this courtesy will acknowledge it with a lift of the hand - and will give the same courtesy to others when it's the necessary thing to do; heck, sometimes they'll back up 100 yards or whatever into a wider stretch, just to help each other out. And in those rural areas, it all works very well, really.

In BC, it's an offence to reverse into, through, or out of, an intersection or crosswalk. In the UK, reversing from a main road into a minor road (while remaining within a foot of the road edge) is a mandatory skills maneuver on the driving test.

As I said, random thoughts.

BC was the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce classification of license. This was before ICBC had even been invented, by the way. The practical application of this was that if you wanted to drive a dump truck - or a taxi, or a bus, or a semi, or a motorcycle - you had to demonstrate your ability to do so in that type of vehicle, including the knowledge necessary to add an airbrake endorsement on your license if necessary. And that's why, to this day, the crashes and carnage on our roads caused by commercial drivers is minimal when compared to many other places around the world.

One of the most significant changes to the Class 7 Road Test in BC that ICBC did bring in, was the requirement that every applicant demonstrate Communication as a fundamental necessary skill. Which is quite different from awarding demerit points for failing to signal, or doing so too late.

When I was in Dublin last year, I noticed that although they had painted cycle lanes all over the place, along with other modern updates to road systems, it didn't seem to have worked so well. The pedestrians are the worst offenders, as they all seem to cheerfully ignore walk/don't walk signals and set off to cross the street as soon as the motor vehicles have gone by. Typically, this will be several seconds before the cyclists arrive, using the same traffic light system. It's clearly exasperating for the cyclists, and really doesn't work effectively. In fact, I recently provided Class 4 driver training to a fellow from Dublin who is a paramedic and an avid cyclist, and when I mentioned this to him he advised that the injury/death rate for cyclists there is very high compared to other places. I'll not try to derive any conclusions from this, it's a complex issue. But it does suggest that all of the unlicensed bipeds should follow the rules - or at least show proper respect for the others using the roadways.