Friday, July 22, 2011
"Driving" in Iran
by Amir Taheri
If it can be called that, "drivers" in Iran have adapted their own rules of driving in this country. At first as an outsider, you are hit with utter shock and astonishment at how cars in Iran get around town. Sitting in a taxi and navigating Iran's streets, you feel that at any moment you will hit another car on the road. Surprisingly, driving in the city, restricted from speeding due to traffic, accidents are not more than one would expect anywhere. Where Iran really sets itself apart from the world is on its highways. Iran has one of the highest accident rates and deaths per capita in the world, over 30,000 a year.
Rules of the road
On paper the rules of the road are as they are anywhere else in the world but as Iranians like to do, they go their own path! For example, driving backwards in a one-way road is acceptable if you need to get to a side road. After 12 o'clock PM, traffic lights become a recommendation and not a must. Driving through an intersection that is somewhat lighter on traffic, it is customary that one honks the horn to let another car coming that, "I am driving through so watch out!". Road lanes are seen more as a helpful hint and if traffic gets heavy, "drivers" will instantly add 1-2 additional lanes to the average 2-3 lane road. Yellow is seen as go versus a green traffic light.
The never ending honking!
The most important tool in a car in Iran, is not its brake, lights, side mirrors, but its horn. I have heard OFTEN, "I can't drive today, my horn is broken!" It is used constantly and everywhere and with no mercy! You use it to signal an approaching car or person that you are getting too close for my comfort. Don't ever upset a driver by pulling quickly in front of them, because as some like to do, they will express their anger in a 30 second long honk fest. Honking is also not always seen as a negative thing; shared taxi drivers (see my last article if you missed this) are prolific users as they honk at people on the side of the road to signal for them to scream out their destination. If it agrees with their route they will honk again to signal, get in. Cars carrying around a wedding couple will also elicit the "songs of the horn" from its convoy. As each driver passes by the slow moving convey of wedding cars, they will express their congratulations by honking a few times. In the past, cars waiting at a traffic light would honk in their boredom of waiting and a few years ago traffic police added timers showing time left to a green light and this has calmed these bored drives.
Iran's liaise faire policy on its roads and lack of coordinated management are allowing Iran's "drivers" to continue with their reckless traveling. A traffic official standing on the road usually applies fines in a pre-set list of violations, like drivers not buckling or accidents. Whereas they need to apply the full law and give out fines for every violation this is not done. Additionally, there are only random crack downs that last for a short while and then things go back to the way they were. For example, outside of Tehran helmets for motorcycles are only randomly enforced with areas set up and confiscation done of the bikes of offenders. After a few days, things go back to normal and "drivers" again avoid the hassle of wearing a helmet. Violation fees are still too low to deter bad driving. Whereas fines have recently gone up and for example, speeding has increased to as much as $200, other violations are still too low to encourage better driving. Switzerland has an innovative method of fining. It applies a fine based on ones yearly income and around a year ago gave out the world's highest speeding fine over $200,000 to a high-earner. In Iran, a large group are driving imported cars that cost them over 40,000-50,000 dollars. These individuals are not deterred by a $20 parking violation or $200 possible maximum speeding fine.
So what is being done
In cities there are a ridiculous amount of speed bumps to reduced speeds. Traffic police stand in most busy intersections either directing traffic at busy times or giving out fines. Iran has a huge fleet of tow trucks, and removes unwanted parkers at one of the highest speeds I have ever seen anywhere. These traffic towing fleet roam the roads and when spotting a parking violation, not that hard to do, they quickly swoop in and remove them. I have also even seen special cranes that remove cars that are tightly packed in-between other cars and are simply lifted up and onto the back of a heavy truck, as if it were a toy car. Many of Iran's highways are setting up camera speed detectors. A point system has been set up with increased points meaning the loss of your drivers license. In an education program on television, smart animation cartoons with 2 famous characters show wrong driving methods and often the right way. These are done with high quality and humor to grab the viewers attention and influence children. Fines have been recently increased heavily to further motivate good driving (still to low in my opinion). These steps are good and in the right direction but our officials need to use a much heavier hand in enforcing the law. There must be a constant push to keep drivers sticking to THE official rules of the road. Switzerland's approach is also not a bad idea to deter those wealthy enough to brush off a fine driving down Iran's roads with $250,000+ cars.
Editor’s Note: Amir Taheri is one of the authors of Uskowi on Iran. His weekly columns appear here on Fridays.
Photo courtesy of Travelpod