In traffic fatalities, Saudi Arabia ranks among the worst in the world. Other countries in the Middle East and Africa dominate nearly all the top (worst) slots in these rankings. I have driven since I was 16 and have many years of safe driving experience. Yet here in Saudi Arabia, because I don’t have a little appendage between my legs, I am prohibited from driving. But pint-sized boys, some of whom aren’t even out of grade school, and irresponsible reckless youth are allowed to get behind the wheel on the streets of Jeddah. In fact, many of these young boy drivers who are too young to legally obtain a driver's license are actually given the task of driving the females of the family around the city to go shopping or to school, putting everyone in the car in danger as well as pedestrians and people in other cars.
|A young boy navigates the streets of Jeddah while driving a big SUV.|
I rarely see anyone in Saudi Arabia buckled up - especially not children, who hang out the cars windows or sun roofs. I’ve seen many dads driving with little babies sitting on their laps or moms in the front seat holding babies on their laps. Infant car seats are rarely used, despite the highly questionable claim I read recently in a Saudi Gazette article that only "40% of Saudi families say they do not use child safety seats." The real number is probably more like 90%.
|A common sight in Jeddah: children sitting on driver's lap or jutting out the sun roof (Photo Credit: M. Eldaly)|
The growth of Jeddah has been nothing short of astounding, to say the least. In the span of just 50 short years, the population exploded from about 50,000 to over 4 million. This phenomenal pace of growth has not come without its problems however. Street planning which may have seemed visionary back in the 1960s has proven to be disastrous in accommodating the millions of cars on Jeddah’s roads every day. And because of the long narrow shape of the city’s layout itself, getting from north to south or vice versa can take hours at peak travel times.
In the past few years, many of Jeddah's roads have undergone major changes. Many streets are currently under construction as the municipality dismantles the huge roundabouts which have dominated many of the biggest intersections of the city, replacing them with more efficient overpasses. These roundabouts – many with four lanes of bumper to bumper traffic - have proven to be a terrible idea in a large city where traffic enforcement is lacking and common driving courtesy is non-existent. Another problem is that many inexperienced foreign male drivers are brought in to the kingdom to chauffeur around the crippled half of Saudi Arabia's entire population - females who are restricted by law from driving. I admit that I am trying to be optimistic about the removal of the roundabouts and view it as a necessary step in preparing the city for women drivers.
The road networking of Jeddah seems to have been purposely designed to make it very difficult for drivers to get from Point A to Point B which results in vehicles taking much longer to get to their destinations, producing congested traffic conditions. Oftentimes there is no access from one major road intersecting with another major road – sounds crazy, but it’s true.
|Crazy traffic congestion in Jeddah.|
Just south and east of the Mall of Arabia lies a huge juncture where at least 12 different lanes of traffic intersect with each other. Believe it or not, this intersection is a free-for-all. Traffic lights are installed at the intersection, but incredibly I have never seen them working - not once!
One baffling traffic idea that plagues this city is the installation of service roads on many of the larger streets. Service roads may be a good idea for freeways, but for major streets within busy cities like Jeddah, it's a nightmare. I just don’t see the need for traffic islands that separate several lanes of traffic headed in the same direction. Trying to enter or leave the service roads in hectic traffic conditions can be a harrowing experience, since there are not separate access ways to enter or exit. This means that through the same opening in the island, cars are both entering and leaving the service road from or to a busy main street. It’s madness.
Many times these service roads are not readily accessible and are easily missed. This means that many vehicles miss their turnoffs and sometimes have to go many kilometers further in order to get back to where they were going because quite often there is no easy way to turn around. As a result, traffic becomes heavily congested because it takes so much longer to reach destinations.
From one day to the next, traffic lanes, exits, and entrances are blocked off with huge cement barriers that weren't there the day before. Every day I see cars driving on the wrong side of the road, mainly because even many smaller streets have dividers with no access to turn around for sometimes several kilometers.
|Cars drive on the wrong side of the streets of Jeddah because center islands have few breaks in which to turn or turn around.|
Some exits are not clearly marked either, which confuses drivers. Many of the exit signs from major roads merely say something like “Corniche” (even though it’s miles from the Corniche) instead of the name of the street and whether it heads north, south, east or west, which is always useful when driving.
Parking here in Jeddah is always a problem. It seems to be an after-thought with the many newly constructed buildings, not to mention the old ones. It is not uncommon to see vehicles double parked or even triple parked in front of businesses or sometimes just parked in the middle of the streets blocking traffic. Adding to the parking problems are the hundreds of disabled and abandoned vehicles covered in dust that are parked all over the city.
|Disabled cars are abandoned all over the streets of Jeddah.|
One day recently within just five minutes on the road, I witnessed two separate violent incidents of road rage. First a man on foot in a white thobe carrying a large heavy rod approached and attacked a huge truck stopped on the side of the road. The man smashed the windows of the truck, dented in the body of the truck, and broke off the rear view mirror. He tried to open the driver's door but luckily it was locked. The poor scared driver of the truck slowly moved the truck forward to try to escape the mad man. Not two minutes later a little further down the same road, I saw two more men in Saudi dress standing outside their vehicles on the side of the road. They were screaming at each other and then starting pushing and punching one another.
|This out of control man attacked this large truck on Siteen Street in Jeddah, smashing the windows with a large bat.|
Traffic rules in Saudi Arabia must be enforced. The people must be educated about courtesy and safety measures they should take for themselves and their children. And women need to be allowed to get drivers' licenses and drive. There is just WAY too much testosterone on the streets of Jeddah!