Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Driving in South Africa

Every country has its own rules for driving – some of them are written, some are unwritten. Often it is the unwritten that are most important. When driving in Spain, I quickly realized that one of the unwritten rules was that the car ahead in traffic had the right of way. It could be only an inch, but that was enough to give that driver freedom to move over. It did not matter if they were on the left or the right. Once I figured that out, driving was easier and much safer. A friend who lived in Italy for a few years explained the lack of lines on the streets (other than center lines) by explaining that this was the way every Italian could have his own lane.

South Africa has some special rules of its own in addition to the fact that they drive, like the British and Australians, on the left side of the road. Fortunately, this time we started driving in a country area and not in downtown Sidney as happened on our visit there. It also helps to have a navigator and backseat drivers remind you when you stray a bit too far to the left or begin driving on the wrong side. We have a stick shift which I was a bit nervous about, but that has not been a particular problem. The difficulty has been the turn signal. In our first vehicle, it was on the right side of the steering wheel and I kept turning on the windshield wipers when trying to signal a turn. Our second car has them on the left side, but by then I was used to the other side and still made a few mistakes, bringing a few more laughs from the passengers.

South Africa does not allow free left turns on a stop light, but apparently they do allow you to go through a red light when moving across lanes. That one really surprised me the first time I saw it. On a divided highway with a stop light, the car in front of me used our green light to move between the lanes and after stopping went through the red light to move on treating it just like a stop light. Another stop light action to get used to is the fact that blinking lights are not the same. A blinking green just means that the light is getting ready to change, not that it is ok to go. I almost got caught on that one once.

South Africans are among the most polite drivers we have seen, fitting the kindness we have felt everywhere. There are a few divided highways, but most of the major roads are two lane undivided highways with few intersections, if any. However, most of these roads are extra wide which allows for safe passing. The white center line is similar to ours in that solid means unsafe to pass. The outside line is yellow. The difference here is that the space outside the yellow line is really wide enough for a car. This allows cars and trucks to drive along the edge safely and allow others to pass. I have seen this occasionally in the US, particularly on the I-5 in southern Oregon where big heavy trucks driving uphill will pull way over effectively creating a third lane. Here, both trucks and cars either spend most of their time outside the yellow line or will move over when a car approaches who obviously needs to pass. The extra space also gives the oncoming traffic room to move out of the way meaning the passing car has even more space. Then the passing car will use the emergency flasher for a short pulse to acknowledge the kindness of the driver who moved over. Jim, my co-pilot, has made sure that happens for us.

We have also had to get used to all the pedestrians. They seem to be everywhere because so many people don't have cars. In some cases, it is even essential to cross a busy main road to get from one side to the other. In addition, many of the people are waiting for one of the minivan taxis that carry people everywhere. Often there are 10 – 15 people waiting in line for one of these 15-seat vans that seem to always be full when we pass them on the road. Out in the country, we will sometimes see people using their thumb trying to hitch a ride or holding out money showing they are willing to pay. Sometimes the person who stops will simply let them ride in the back of a truck where they will often stand. We even saw one riding on a trailer hitch.

Finally, big trucks have to be off the road after dark, making that time a much safer time to be driving.

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