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Driving Miss Crazy

 article about South Africa
South Africa is a country that, in recent years, has become more and
more attractive to visitors from overseas. In fact, the country's
tourism industry is booming, with travelers arriving every day by the
plane-load. And they all come with their minds crammed full of the
preconceived ideas that the brochures and travel agents expound. These
ideas are pretty much shot down, however, somewhere between the airport
and their hotel. See, most visitors to sunny South Africa come in via
Johannesburg International Airport. And, in getting to wherever their
eventual holiday destination might be, a good number have to experience
driving on the roads of Johannesburg.

Johannesburg has a
basic approach to public transportation. It's broke, and we cant fix
it. So a large number of people living in the city, which is now one of
the worlds largest, own their own vehicles. And they drive them
whenever they can. Car pooling is pretty much unheard of, meaning that
if youre in a car in Joburg, youre stuck in traffic. Even in the drive
through at McDonalds. Add this to the fact that the average resident of
Johannesburg has the disposition of a rhinoceros that has just backed
into a thorn bush, and you get a very interesting situation indeed.

Johannesburg has often been referred to as the financial capital of
Africa. It is perhaps because of this status that Joburgers do things
fast driving included. The ultimate goal when driving in the city is to
get there before the other guy, no matter what. Although speed limits
are posted, these have a special sliding scale applied to them the
higher the speed limit, the more you need to break it by. Adding one
third to the number of the speed limit is a general guideline, but the
actual unwritten rules are far more complicated. And, no matter how
much you break the speed limit by, there will always be someone going
faster. It might be good to try and set a new land speed record on one
of Johannesburgs highways, because there will be some guy in a five
litre Ford going faster than the test vehicle. Guaranteed success,
Joburg style.

One would imagine that fast driving would lead to
other areas of safe driving practice. But, then again, thinking seems
to be the last thing on the Joburg drivers mind. No matter how fast you
go, there will be someone on your tail. One of two theories seems to be
at blame for this; drivers are either trying to improve fuel economy by
taking advantage of the leading cars slipstream, or they are trying to
minimize damage by keeping a small impact distance between their
vehicle and the one in front of them. This tail-gating happens at all
times, no matter what time of day. Should you, for example, manage to
find a deserted stretch of road in Johannesburg in the middle of the
night (as unlikely as it seems) there will be some guy right behind you
with his high beams on. See, drivers in Joburg only switch to their low
beams after they have blinded you. It makes dodging oncoming traffic
even more interesting. This great speed also results in everything in
the city being at most twenty minutes away. Ask any local for
directions, and you will invariably be told, sometime during the
explanation, that its about twenty minutes away. This time period is,
of course, directly proportionate to the speed of the vehicle in
question, but Joburgers tend to adjust their speed accordingly.

is the watchword. If you want to survive your Johannesburg driving
experience, leave any modicum of patience at home. Driving in
Johannesburg would have turned Mother Theresa is a curse-slinging,
bird-flipping maniac within fifteen minutes. Dont wait for the person
in front of you to change into first gear honk your horn as soon as the
light goes green. In fact, you can even pre-empt it and honk when the
opposite light turns amber. And dont give anyone a gap.

another driver a gap results in the unthinkable; theyll be in front of
you. This is another reason for keeping your following distance to a
minimum, no matter what the average speed. If you leave a gap, someone
will take it. In fact, they will take one even if it isnt there, and
will then wave a sweet thank you while you fight for control of your
rapidly braking car. It comes down to the basic principle that needs to
be adopted by anyone driving in this city: anyone behind you is
tail-gating and anyone in front of you is in your way. Should you
manage to find a gap and, God forbid, take it, the guy behind you will
flip you off and curse you into an early grave. This is probably
because you are now in front of him. This rule applies to any gap up to
a kilometer in size.

To make matters even more interesting, a
form of public transportation, colloquially called black taxis (due to
the fact that they are largely used and operated by the black
population) makes up a large proportion of Joburgs road users. These
van taxis have a certain method of operation road rules do not apply to
them. They stop anywhere and everywhere to pick up more passengers
(often trying to set new world cramming people into a van records)
muscle their way into any gap and generally cause a lot of mayhem. The
emergency lane is apparently reserved for their use, and any other
vehicle on the road automatically forfeits its right of way when within
fifty yards of one. And changing lanes comes down to driving diagonally
across the road, no matter how many oncoming cars there may be.
Strangely enough, these often unlicensed, often unroadworthy menaces
are the most successful form of public transportation in Johannesburg.

course, accidents do happen. These are quite the occasion for the
typical jaded driver they are something of a spectator sport. On
passing an accident, it is pretty much mandatory to slow down and
rubber neck until well clear of the accident scene. The worse the
accident, the slower you drive past it. This rubber necking rule also
applies to people changing tyres, broken down vehicles and hookers.

last thing. Traffic signals in Johannesburg (along with stop signs) are
to be treated as optional, at best. Stopping at a red light means that
you may get accosted by beggars, vendors selling refuse bags and
plastic coat hangers, or even hijacked (if car hijacking was an Olympic
event, South Africa would come home with all the gold medals.) And,
worst of all, if you stop for a red light, it means that you are being
slowed down, and more people get the chance to be in front of you.
Remember, though, that when running a red light in Johannesburg, the
theory is that the faster you go, the less chance you have of being
hit. Because of this, all green traffic signals need to be approached
with great caution. Just because it says you can go doesnt mean you
shouldnt slow down and check both ways before proceeding.

there you have it. The average tourist coming to Johannesburg (and
being unfortunate enough to have to drive here) is in for quite an
education. Even New Yorks notoriously bad traffic looks like a Sunday
afternoon outing compared to the high speed mayhem that somehow
delivers Joburgers where they want to go each day. How do they survive?
Your guess is probably as good as mine, but it probably has a lot to do
with the overall pack mentality that takes over when entering a vehicle
destined to drive on Johannesburgs roads.

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