In a previous post, I described driving in Qatar as shit scary. I have been trying since to come up with a more eloquent expression to use, but I genuinely can’t.
You will experience this phenomenon the first time you come to a roundabout in Doha (it won’t take long — hopefully as a passenger, ideally a back seat one. During this life altering moment you are likely to shout, or perhaps politely think if you’re from a stiff upper lip nation, “What the **** is he/she doing????”.
You will watch aghast as your driver floors the accelerator as you approach the merge and speeds toward a flood of massive SUVs that seem to be spilling onto the roundabout despite your presence, dodge a car that suddenly decides, with neither indication nor apparent thought to the value of their lives or yours, to cross your lane to exit before you and then listen as the driver takes a big intake of breath, clasps the steering wheel determinedly and points the car in the direction of the exit you want to take, speed up further, perhaps plough through more cars that have hurtled in front of you, and join the next road.
Actually, that’s all a lie.
You won’t watch. Your eyes will actually be clenched shut, your jaw clenched more tightly than you deemed possible, likely taking a decade’s worth of enamel with it, and your fingernails will be embedded deep into the leather of the arm rest.
Welcome to driving in Doha.
This is a crazy city. It moves at a pace that alternates between sleepy stupour and Usain Bolt style. Nowhere is this more evident than on the roads.
It’s tempting to point the finger at locals, who drive fast and furious, but that’s unfair. Doha is a melting pot of nationalities and I actually find a lot of similarity between the crazy nonsensical roads of South East Asia and here, except that there, the most powerful engines are the tuk tuks and the Honda 50 ccs. Here it’s Land Cruisers, Lexuses and Nissans with 3.8 litre engines that rule the roads. A heady combination, and not a particularly good one! Add a network of constantly changing roads to the mix and you have chaos.
So, here are some tips about driving here and getting on the road, should you decide after reading this that you don’t want to take up walking. (And trust me, that’s not going to work here either!)
Forget what you know about roundabouts.
If you hadn’t already guessed from my comments above, roundabouts are a whole new world of anxiety here. It’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants time, and there are no rules other than to get off that roundabout alive and unsoiled.
Genuinely though, drive like you know what you’re doing. That speeding up shows other drivers they don’t want to cut you off And be prepared for those nutcases cutting you up to exit. They actually will be you in the future when you realise that you can’t go straight on from the middle lane because people are turning left from your outside lane. Yes, seriously.
Expect the unexpected.
Crazy driving doesn’t just happen on roundabouts. It can happen on four lane expressways too, when someone decides that they need to exit or just need to go faster. It’s not unknown for people to cut across four lanes in one maneouveur. At 100km. In between other cars.
Give way to bigger cars.
Forget that rule about leaving two car spaces between you and the car in front. That just won’t work in Doha. It will be full of other cars in the time it takes you to slow down, so to make it work, you will actually need to drive backward. Bigger cars will always try to push in. They won’t indicate. They will just move, especially if you’ve left space (but that’s not required). Expect it and stay alert.
Believe it or not, you’ll be doing it soon too.
Horns – get used to them
The bigger the car, the more likely they are to sit on the horn when they are stuck behind you. To be fair about this, it is entirely reasonable that they should beep you when you haven’t moved 0.00000001 milliseconds after the light has gone green, or when you haven’t squeezed yourself in between a truck and a bus travelling at top speed, just to ensure they can push past.
This will initially rank up alongside roundabouts as your most loathed moments on the road in Doha. There’s no ever-so-polite shifting of cars from the inside lane to the middle as they approach a merge doesn’t happen here, so you need to learn to judge, and fast or the horns will start, how you will merge. If you’re not fast enough, the cars behind will start to overtake you while you try to merge. While beeping. Yes, seriously.
You will get better at it with time!
Navigation requires a sat nav
Forget any notion of learning the roads in this city so that you can navigate with ease. They are literally rebuilding an entire road network across swathes of the city, so a road you took tomorrow might not exist tomorrow and a whole new diversion will be in place. Avoid Google Maps — it is woeful at keeping up to date with map changes and doesn’t give enough warning of turns. Waze is absolutely amazing and will become your best friend in the cockpit. So much so that on those rare occasions when it lets you down you find yourself sobbing to it about betrayal and how you expected so much better from your relationship!
You don’t need a road to drive on
Now there is a fun meaning to this and the reason so many people have 4x4s. We live in the desert after all, and what better activity for a winter’s day that racing off road over the dunes.
However, some people take that off roading to another level, and it’s not unknown to see SUVs getting fed up with traffic and mounting the median areas to drive as far as they can through the rubble before rejoining, possibly 30 seconds further along their journey than they would otherwise have been. The same rules apply to parking. If there are no spaces, just leave the car anywhere. Ideally as close as possible to where you’re going. If that’s a pavement, it doesn’t really matter. After all, pavements are just random disconnected decorative objects placed around the city with no intent for pedestrians to ever actually attempt to — gasp! — walk somewhere on them.
Driving test instructors may grab the wheel
In my 10 minute driving test, I got yelled at to go faster, shouted at to drive straight (and when I did, I was told it was the wrong straight) and then the instructor grabbed the wheel to correct me. I still passed.
There’s a whole post I’ve written about passing your test here. I’ll post it separately, because that’s an adventure in itself.
Car seats aren’t the norm here
As shocking as this sounds, car seats are not the norm on these crazy roads. You will regularly see children 1980’s Ireland style, standing between the front seats of their car or mothers holding toddlers unbelted on their laps on the front seat. It is perhaps reflective of the general crazy attitude to road safety, but it makes my heart sink every time I see it, especially on the crazily busy 4 lane expressways.
Go for it… drive
For all of the above comments, it is possible to drive and drive relatively safely around Doha. It’s also perfectly possible to use a taxi service and might even work out cheaper.
So if you’re reading this and unsure about whether you want to drive or not, don’t let this put you off. You will get used to the roads, you will pass your test and you will appreciate the freedom this gives you to explore this wonderful city.
If you’re reading this from Qatar, I’d love to hear your experiences or tips for the new driver. If you haven’t been here before but can think of somewhere that will rival this, please do let me know!
Image credit: Sam Agnew, Flickr