2008 Contest Shortlist

The Worst Drivers in the World

The Italians, Egyptians and Zimbabweans are vying for first place.

I’ve travelled a lot around the world – my country counter is now over 30. One thing I’ve noticed throughout my travels is that the quality of driving around the world varies considerably. I’ve devised my own award for the worst offenders – the Juan Manuel Fangio Award for Outstanding Defensive Driving.

Let me explain.

Case Study Number One: Italian Drivers

I have a theory – the amount of religious paraphernalia on a car’s rear view mirror is a reliable indicator of how crap the drivers are. The more crucifixes, rosary beads, or evil eyes wrapped around the mirror, the more dangerous the driving is. I first tested this theory in Italy. By heritage, I am half Sicilian and half Northern Italian. A visit to Italia was a home-coming of sorts for me, even though I’d never been here before in a physical sense. However, my first encounter with my Italian heritage was to be – the traffic.

The city of Rome was my first exposure to the chaotic Latino driving that was the bane of the Italian stereotype: the roads are an extension of the Monza Formula One race track. Collisions result from a reckless apathy for traffic laws and from gawking at gorgeous women walking down the street. Merging is a competition, not a mutual effort; road signs and traffic lights are merely ornamentation. Moped riders manoeuvre in ways that I would not attempt on a Play Station.

Drivers will tailgate, wildly waving their hands as if to signify an emergency. I thought maybe Italians were fearful of being late for the latest christening, hot date or lunch at mama and papas. I concluded that they simply enjoyed dicing with death for kicks.

Italy’s rating on the Crazy Driver Index (out of 10) – 7.

Case Study Number Two: Egyptian Taxis

Here is some advice – one should refuse to enter a Cairo taxi, even if one really needs to. I’m not sure what side of the road these taxis drive on, because they use the ENTIRE road. From this harrowing experience, I have devised my own facts about Cairo taxis:

– My previous stated theory that high volumes of religious paraphernalia = bad driving was indeed confirmed once again – Egyptian taxis seemed to have enough evil eyes and prayer beads to reduce the car’s centre of gravity below the potholed tarmac;

– A high number of car dents or bent panels is an indication that someone is looking after the taxi driver;

– It’s a lineball decision to leave ones’ nose inside or outside of the taxi – your nose will be wiped out by either a collision with another taxi, or by the drivers’ nose-hair-singing body odour;

– Pedestrians must give way to taxis at all times and locations, even at zebra crossings and when the green-man light is on; and

– Seat belts are optional, unworkable or not available.

Egypt’s rating on the Crazy Driver Index – 9.5.

Case Study Number Three: Minibus Taxis in Zimbabwe

My favourite! Ever tried working out the logic of waiting four hours for a minibus taxi, for it to blast onto a neglected highway system at the speed of sound for an 11 hour journey sitting next to a person with the biggest backside in the world? Me neither.

On a trip to Zimbabwe, I arrived at Bulawayo Train Station at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning after an overnight trip from Victoria Falls. I wandered around the grimy streets asking for the presence of the bus station. After discovering that no bus offices were open that day, it frightfully dawned on me there was only one option to return to South Africa that day – the dreaded mini-bus taxi.

I had previously seen mini-bus taxis everywhere in Africa, but never had the privilege of being transported within one. Mini-bus taxis seem to work on the principle of not leaving the car park until they are full, to maximise the income gained per seat per trip. This wait may last from four minutes to four hours, or possibly even four days – probably insignificant in African time terms.

I heard horror stories about these taxis – the vast majority of them are clapped-out pieces of corrosion that would not pass a roadworthy at a demolition derby. The best story was where a driver had replaced the worn steering-wheel by attaching two plumbing wrenches on the column instead. However, this was my (relatively) lucky day. After the driver had graciously accepted my money, I only waited for a grand total of four hours for the mini-bus to depart the Bulawayo bitumen. A steady trickle of people would arrive at the mini-bus to pay their money and use their luggage as a makeshift bed, while waiting for the signal to leave.

At midday, the mini-bus had reached its quota (that is, three times the legal carrying capacity of the vehicle) and left the car park. It was from this point where I was abruptly introduced to the rather absurd four/one forty rule – waiting four hours for the mini-bus to fill up in the car park, only for this lost time to be compensated by screaming along the woefully under-resourced Zimbabwean Highway system at the top speed of 140 kilometres per hour. I concluded that Africa does not need a Grand Prix as there is enough high speed action on its highways.

The mini-bus taxi may as well have been a suicidal Mitsubishi Zero, ready to honourably take out a pylon of a precisely targeted overpass. What added to the mini-bus thrill theme ride was that I’d miserably lost the dreadful game of mini-bus musical chairs – I’d managed to pick the seat next to the person with the largest arse on the mini-bus, and possibly, southern Africa. She was a large woman who seemed friendly enough. She did not communicate with me in words – but instead with various facial expressions. She tried her best to make room for me from her window seat, but when combined with my arse, it was inevitable that one of my butt cheeks would pathetically lose out. I still have the mental and physical scars of that trip – especially the one dissecting my right butt cheek.

During this doomed trip, I had thought Johannesburg was probably not the most ideal place to scramble for suitable accommodation at an estimated arrival time of midnight. At the Zimbabwe/South African border post at Beitbridge, I had arranged beds (note, plural) for myself and another minibus taxi journeyman, a Belgian man called Jan, at a Pretoria backpackers. I noticed that my recently purchased South African phone card displayed the helpful advice of ‘Don’t Cut Your Lifeline’ complete with pictures of a public phone handset and a set of open bolt cutters. Since my lifeline was not yet broken, I received an assurance from the Backpackers that they would wait for us until we arrived. Once I had finished drinking a gut-rotting Coke out of an ingeniously marketed AfriCAN, it was time to brace myself for another supersonic test ride.

However, after continuing his kamikaze mission for another few hours, the mini-bus driver probably had another mini-bus taxi car park that was more important than mine and had completely bypassed Pretoria and was on the way to Johannesburg. After informing the death wish pilot, he exited the freeway at the midway suburb of Centurion and we said our humble goodbyes at the nearby service station. This may have sounded uneventful, but I received an eerie feeling when I spotted the ‘Hijacking Hotspot’ advisory sign at the top of the exit ramp.

In an unconvincingly reassuring voice, I said to Jan ‘It mustn’t be THAT bad – the Hijacking Hotspot sign hasn’t been hijacked yet!’

We called a less suicidal taxi and managed to reach Pretoria without being hijacked, where we pleaded for the Backpackers to let us in at midnight. To our delight, a muddled voice answered on the intercom and a buzzer sounded to release the thick steel bar security gates.

We were stuffed and there was only a queen bed available in the entire hostel. After 12 hours on the Victoria Falls train, four hours lounging on backpacks in a hot Bulawayo mini bus taxi car park, and 11 hours on the mini-bus, I did not give a rats. The bed was the most comfort I had encountered in days, and it didn’t matter who I shared it with. I was quite prepared to endure an unconscious man-hug from Jan at three o’clock in the morning if I had to, but I really needed to sleep. After washing off the slimy African grime from the previous two days, we both crashed in an exhausted slump, grateful to still be alive.

The minibus taxi rating on the Crazy Driver Index – 11.

In conclusion, crazy drivers are one of the joys of travelling, and are part of the authentic travel experience. Just make sure your life insurance is up to date and of a considerable amount!

Anthony Bianco