Driving in Islamabad: A Primer for Beginners March 25, 2006Posted by KG in FS Life, Pakistan.
Unlike most of South Asia, Islamabad is built on a fairly clear system. Though the numbering system seems to have no logic, the fact is that most of the roads are wide, well paved, and laid out in right angles, or on occasion soft curves.
Do not be fooled by appearances.
Though Islamabad is a planned city and thus lacks the anarchic road layouts prevalent in South Asia, the drivers remain South Asian. Thus, the near-logical layout creates an illusion of order — the grid is only as logical as the behavior of the drivers within it. In a perfect system with perfect drivers, Islamabad would be a traffic dream. Unfortunately, the reality is that Islamabad is a city full of Daisy Buchanans (and her pedestrian equivalents), willfully ignorant of all rules, hoping for everyone else to be mindful. The result: driving conditions that despite not being as treacherous as the roads of Calcutta or Karachi, are just as harrowing for the driver trained in the West.
To drive in Islamabad, the first thing you must do is eliminate all instincts that may push you to driving in auto pilot. You need to hone your skills and pay attention at every second of your drive. Need to sneeze? Pull over. There is no telling when you will encounter a Mehran making a turn from the middle lane, or a parked car opening its door without looking out for oncoming traffic, or a giant pile of rocks sitting in the middle of the road. Likewise, dispense with using turn signals and the like; these are unneccessary, especially considering that no one else will notice that you are using them. Also, consider purchasing a basic mouth guard. This will protect your teeth from the inevitable grinding that will occur.
Once moving at a steady clip through the streets of Islamabad, keep one thing in mind: this is all a game, and winning the game does not mean getting from point A to point B quickly. It means arriving at your destination unscathed, without being ticketed, and without screaming at the other drivers at the top of your lungs (the latter is a good stress reliever, but will take your eyes away from the road). Some important, unspoken commandments of this game: Ignore lane markings if swerving means avoiding a hazard. Turn quickly and with conviction. Use your mirrors, but more importantly keep a constant, Jedi-like awareness of your surroundings. Ignore all other drivers unless they are directly in the way of you arriving at your destination (someone do something crazy that doesn’t affect you? Ignore it!). And most importantly: keep moving. Stopping will allow the other players in the game to surround you, and finding a window to escape will be difficult.
The one exception to these rules is the traffic light, a Western innovation that is surprisingly common and more or less obeyed in Islamabad. This is due to the ever-vigilant Islamabad Traffic Police, who stop and ticket drivers with relative frequency. The police provide yet another hurdle for the ambitious Westerner bent on navigating Islamabad’s roads. Still, work on the assumption that no other drivers are paying attention to the lights and you’ve added another layer of vigilance, moving you closer to the goal of road dominance.
The streets of Islamabad may seem to be easy to those used to more congested cities. However, appearances are deceiving — the roads are wrought with perils. Pedestrians dressed in black, walking in the middle of the street at night. Bikes with no reflective lights crossing seemingly coming out of nowhere. Swerving and weaving motorcycles, often being ridden by a man and his wife (with toddler in arms). What may at one moment look like this:
Could very easy end up looking like this:
But don’t let these facts dissuade you. The streets of Islamabad can indeed be conquered through conviction and concentration. Stay strong. Keep your eyes open. And don’t worry too much about the occasional scrape – remember one of the great things about South Asia is that labor is incredibly cheap.
Best of luck.