“I’ll help you renew your driver’s licence” announced Haile, as we bounced through some pot-holes on our way home last week. A motorcyclist wearing a tee-shirt and no helmet with a traffic policeman riding pillion also with no helmet snaked past us through the progressively more congested traffic. We were soon stationary at the infamous Tor Hailoch roundabout. I handed Haile my licence. “Hmm” he mused, “not for five weeks. We will go after three weeks.”
In a little under three weeks we complete our fourth year here, so all our paperwork needs renewing again although the drivers’ licences are only every two years (because we are over 55 – under 55 it’s every four years). I’m quite looking forward to renewing our drivers’ licences. Unlike two years ago, this time we will need a medical (for our US readers, a “physical”) and I am expecting fun blog post material. Judging by reports from colleagues who have had it done recently it’s something that in the UK the Care Quality Commission might be interested in – and then shut down. Watch this space.
The helmetless motorcyclist reminded me that the Ethiopian equivalent of the British Highway Code actually exists (so I’m told), and drivers who obtain their driver’s licence without using financial incentives have to read it and do a theory exam. But being unable to find a copy, I thought I’d write my own. So here’s the Highway Code for Ethiopia. The headings are similar to the British version – which, as its 189 pages long, I’ve shortened a bit.
1. Rules for pedestrians
Pedestrians always have the right of way. Cross the road wherever you like, and as slowly as you like, and without looking – it doesn’t matter what’s coming, as all pedestrians are allowed to assume that all vehicles have a zero stopping distance. Don’t worry if a vehicle hits you – it’s always the driver’s fault. Ignore pavements – just walk in the road, and don’t worry about being in single file. Socialising and prolonged greeting on the road are always acceptable. As long as you can vault fences and concrete walls crossing the ring road on foot is also permitted – the foot bridges are just too far apart.
2. Rules for users of powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters
Drive these as and where you like. The “drive on the right” rule does not apply to wheelchairs. Ignore pavements.
3. Rules about animals
Allow your donkeys to behave like pedestrians. They know the route to the teff market, so leave them to make their own way there while you meet and greet and eat breakfast. Animals you have bought at market can be driven along public highways without restriction and in any direction.
4. Rules for cyclists
There are no rules for cyclists.
5. Rules for motorcyclists
Usually (but not always) drive on the right. Go the shortest route possible around roundabouts. Helmets can be worn but are not compulsory - carry them on your handlebars, on the fuel tank, or even better worn backwards and balanced on the back of your head. Ignore all traffic lights – they don’t apply to you.
6. General rules, techniques and advice for all drivers and riders
a. Rules for Minivan Taxi Drivers
Minivan taxis have a right to be in front of all other vehicles at all times. Achieve this in any way you please. If you are more than 5mm in front of another vehicle, you can veer and swerve either left or right with impunity and expect the other driver to give way. You may double and triple park at will. See section 9.
b. Rules for using Mirrors
Don’t. Concentrate on what’s in front of you - anything behind you can take care of itself. You only need mirrors to cope with random police searches, which if you are a minivan taxi driver will happen to you at least once every day of your driving career.
c. Vehicle Lights
Ensure the lights you need for seeing ahead of you in the dark are in working order and as bright as possible. All other lights are optional. Borrow bulbs from your friends for the statutory annual vehicle inspection.
Drive as close to the central roundabout as possible, irrespective of your exit from the roundabout. Never wait to enter a roundabout - creep forward without stopping until you’re allowed in.
e. Right of Way
The vehicle that has the right of way is the one in front. To gain right of way at a junction, keep inching in to the middle until there’s no room for anyone to pass you. Never stop creeping forwards. Ever.
f. Use of Direction Indicators
Optional. Assuming they work.
7. Using the road
Drive on the right most of the time. If there’s too much traffic, drive on the left.
8. Driving in adverse weather conditions
In heavy rain with reduced visibility maintain your speed and turn on your hazard flashers. Bear in mind foreign drivers might turn on their headlights – flash yours at any vehicle you see who has inconsiderately done this.
9. Waiting and parking
Stop whenever and wherever you like – signalling your intention is unnecessary.
There’s only one. Once past the toll booth all signs and speed limits can safely be ignored. Stop anywhere you like.
11. Breakdowns and incidents
If you break down or have a puncture, stop and fix it irrespective of how much traffic congestion you cause. Moving your vehicle to the side of the road is unnecessary. If involved in an accident, it is always the other person’s fault. Extract as much money from them as possible, even if you have no intention of having your vehicle repaired. Don’t move your vehicle until a traffic policeman has drawn white chalk marks on the road.
12. Light signals controlling traffic
Should they be working (rare) obey them – except at night when you can do what you like. If the lights have a countdown timer, once this reaches 5 seconds release your handbrake and start revving your engine and inching forward. Once it reaches 1 second, sound your horn.
13. Road markings
These appear and disappear randomly. White lines down the road are to give you an indication as to how many vehicles wide the road is – always at least one and possibly two more vehicles than the number of lines. Some junctions are covered in a grid of yellow squares. No-one knows why. “Traffic lane” is a foreigner’s phrase – there is no Amharic word for this incomprehensible concept.
14. Signals to other road users
Dangling your left hand out of the window at an angle no greater than 30 degrees, and preferably wiggling your fingers, gives you immediate and unalienable right of way over all surrounding vehicles.
15. Traffic signs
There aren’t any.
16. Know your traffic signs
Given section 15 above, this is really easy.
17. Vehicle markings
Few vehicles have any meaningful markings – they have mostly been scraped off in minor accidents. Despite the possibility of sheep and/or goats in the back, ambulances are notable for their red lights on the top.
As an illustration, let me tell you what happened one Wednesday lunchtime as Tigist and I were driving back to HQ after doing our morning clinic at Bingham. I was driving us down a major inner city dual carriageway with the light railway line down the middle and no turnings to the right, when we pulled up behind a couple of guys running down the middle of the road driving a herd of around 30 bulls. They were completely blocking the road. There was no way past them and no exit until the High Court roundabout several hundred metres ahead. We crept on behind them, and a huge queue developed behind us. As we eventually approached the roundabout, a traffic policeman appeared from under the now elevated railway line. “Aha!” I said to Tigist, “that policeman is going to sort them out!” As the herd was made to turn right down a slip road to another dual carriageway the policeman headed into the middle of them. Suddenly he turned, and flagged down the red and orange bus that was trying to go down the same slip road as the bulls. The door opened, and he hopped in. I gasped - he'd wanted a lift, and had no intention of sorting out the herdsmen. As we were turning left at the roundabout we went past the bus and the bulls as they headed off into the distance.
Under Ethiopian law, it is an offence to drive livestock on a public road…