I am genuinely thrilled to be experiencing the traffic here. Rarely have I come across something so deliciously astonishing. And it seems like there are many lessons that can be learned from the traffic. Certainly, the anarchists of the world would rejoice in witnessing it.
I remember when my Dad was visiting us in Canada that he was always surprised when we stopped at stop signs. "But there aren't any other cars!" he would protest. Here in Tehran, he looks on the bright side of the traffic situation. He says, "You would think that there would be more accidents, with people driving like this in a city of more than ten million." And I think he's right. The reason that there aren't more accidents is that there are rules. It just takes a while to figure them out. All other driving behavior is a direct result of these three fundamental rules.
Despite the appearances of uncontrollable chaos, there is such a thing as right-of-way in Tehran. In Canada, we have all sort of rules as to who has the right of way in each situation. Here, most of these are condensed into the First Fundamental Rule of Driving in Tehran:
1. Whoever gets there first has the right of way.
By judicious use of this rule, you can accomplish exactly what the Lonely Planet Guide forbids you to do: cross eight lanes with your back to the traffic. Cars, Motorcycles, and pedestrians all have equal importance. This means that we, pedestrians, have as much of a right to the streets as the cars do (the corollary to this is that the cars occasionally come onto the sidewalks). You just have to make sure that the cars have enough time to swerve or stop so that they don't hit you.
Of course, pedestrians don't exactly belong on the street. If you were to walk out there and stand in the middle of the street daydreaming, you'd be asking for trouble. But so long as you're moving with purpose, your invasion will be tolerated.
Dad once made a U-turn in the middle of a four lane street by using this rule. Everything worked surprisingly well. He just stopped in the middle of the street (creating a backlog behind him), then started turning slowly into the oncoming traffic, even though there was no perceivable gap in the traffic. A few cars swerved and squeezed by us, but finally someone had to stop and give us way. Hehe! Of course, that created a backlog behind that car, automatically slowing down the next lane too. So the next lane was even easier. Within ten seconds, Dad had made a U-turn in a very unlikely spot, and traffic had returned to normal. There were no rude gestures, expletives, or car horns used by us or anyone in the whole operation. Amazing!
2. Signs and road markings are merely suggestions or decoration.
The other day, we were driving down a one-way street, when we were confronted by a big 4x4 vehicle driving the wrong way up the single-lane one-way street. As a result, the flow of traffic almost came to a stand-still as we inched by the over-sized monstrosity. Dad shook his head in disapproval and said, "She shouldn't be driving that car up a one-way street." I laughed and asked cheekily, "as opposed to a smaller car? It would be allowed to?" Dad replied matter-of-factly, "Yes."
I've seen it many times since. If going all the way around a one-way street is too inconvenient, people will go ahead and drive through it the wrong way. The people driving the right way don't seem to mind too much and are incredibly accommodating, giving you the right-of-way in many situations.
In fact, the only street-sign that I've seen obeyed with any consistency is the "dead-end" sign. We come across that quite often as we try to find short-cuts through residential areas. Clearly it is in our best interests to obey those.
As for the line markings on the streets, they are obeyed even less than street signs. The most prevalent example of that is that you will often find three or four lanes of traffic in what is marked as two lanes. Obviously, drivers are much better equipped than the authorities at figuring out how many cars can cram into a given space. In fact, the authorities don't even bother marking most streets, freeing the driver-artists to express themselves fully.
The driver-artists are always expanding their creative repertoire.
Last week, we were driving along the left lane of the two West-bound lanes of a crowded highway. I was feeling pretty safe, because we were separated from the two East-bound lanes by a pair of solid yellow lines. But suddenly, we were confronted by the sight of three cars abreast hurtling towards us! Someone in the on-coming traffic was trying to overtake the car in front of him by using our lane as a passing lane! To make things worse, the car was a Peykan, an it definitely didn't have enough power to overtake the other car quickly. Surely the driver would give up and return to the East-bound lanes? No such luck.
So there we were, plunging towards each other at 200Km/h (the sum of our speeds). I was frantically trying to figure out how this guy thought he had right of way in our lane when we were obviously there first. Unfortunately, I was getting no closer to the answer, but I was getting closer (very quickly) to those three cars. Fortunately, Dad (and the rest of the cars behind us) calmly squeezed over into the right lane of the West-bound lanes and then returned to the left lane when the Peykan had passed.
I forced myself to blink twice. Then I pried my fingers one by one from the top of the glove compartment in front of me. I was dimly aware of Dad giving a short chuckle. Slowly, I understood the third Fundamental Rule of Driving in Tehran:
3. If you have enough cheek, you can ignore the other two Fundamental Rules of Driving in Tehran.
Coming soon: Driving in Tehran, Part III - Some stories and observations