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How to beat the traffic

In dangerous conflict zones, one of the most dangerous phenomena is a traffic jam or busy road. Here we explain the basics of how to avoid them.


In learning the skills for driving in extremely dangerous environments, the authoritative textbook is Robert H. Deatherage, Jr., Survival Driving: Staying Alive on the World's Most Dangerous Roads. This short article is no substitute for the volume of experience conveyed in that extensive manual. But it may serve as a short introduction to the skills you need to learn in order to drive safely on roads where there is a substantial risk of firearms munitions or explosives being used against your vehicle or its occupants.


When driving in busy and dangerous urban environments, assuming you are not working with a full Close Protection Unit (CPU), you should aim to drive one of two sorts of car. The standard option, taught in the textbooks, is to drive a run down vehicle of the kind driven by local people who are not wealthy, popularly known as a "banger". The logic behind this is that you do not stand out, and there is much to be said for that. Nevertheless, if you are the subject of surveillance then it probably doesn't matter whether you stand out or not. The main difficulty with using a banger is that you won't be able to travel much faster than the predominant speed of other bangers on busy roads; and if you get stuck and need to move out of the traffic immediately, you'll just have to get out of the banger in the middle of the traffic and make a dash for it. If at this stage the licence plates have anything to do with you, don't forget them.


Bangers are typically purchased for cash at car markets on the edge of towns. Enquire locally to find out where, and take someone who speaks the language and knows a bare minimum about cars. Insist on some sort of title document, even if it doesn't have your name in it (this is probably better). We have "owned" many bangers, all of which had another fault: as befits their names, they repeatedly break down. You will end up ditching them at the most inconvenient times. A good banger is probably very cheap, but it needs a mechanic to look over it. Full functionality of all lights and indicators on the car is essential, or the Police will stop you for bribes relentlessly.


A second option for transit across a dangerous environment is to use a vehicle that could serve as a police car, and you carry a flashing blue light (these are not particularly difficult to source) to use illegitimately to pass the traffic, placing it on the roof with a siren (also not difficult to source) whenever necessary. This doesn't always work; the trick is so common in Cairo that everyone ignores it, leaving genuine emergency vehicles often stranded. (By contrast in Cairo it will be extremely clear when the President's cavalcade is coming, and you will get out of the way immediately, even if you think that the manoeuvre to do so is absolutely impossible.)


The method of driving while using a blue flashing light is down the middle of the road, keeping any dashed lines more or less in the middle of the car, driving at about 5mph (10kph) faster than the speed limit, with the light flashing but the siren reserved for when any vehicle comes within two vehicle lengths without pulling over onto the verge (which is what 90% of vehicles will do when faced with a person driving in such a way). A small burst of the siren as one turns into a stream of traffic will alert the traffic to move out of the way, with an extended use of the siren for the most recalcitrant traffic. This can often be the quickest way to transit a large city, to be used if time is of the essence.


While driving in this way, remain calm and do not steer into any specific lane. Remain between lanes or you risk crash and injury. Keep your speed absolutely constant, so that other drivers find your actions predictable and manoeuvre accordingly. Unless they are experts in driving in dangerous environments, they will all do the same thing: they will pull over and stop, leaving a free road. Avoid emergency breaking at all costs; this may result in a shunt from the rear. If you must slow down because there is an obstruction ahead, anticipate the obstruction and slow down gradually.


There is always a risk of the Police being interested in what you are doing, but if the car is reasonably expensive and the driving responsible they will be unlikely to stop you. In case they do, a set of foreign government identity and driving licence papers will be highly useful.


In some of the world's densest traffic metropolises (Istanbul, Cairo, Lagos), the use of a blue light and siren may not work. In such cities mopeds may be the quickest means of travel because they can weave in and out of the traffic. However it takes substantial practice to drive a moped in this way, particularly where the lanes of traffic are multiple and lane direction discipline may not always be observed, particularly by other users of mopeds. Hostile environment moped driving is a science in its infancy. We re-emphasise that it is extremely dangerous; Lagos, the city perhaps best known for eccentric moped use, has as many as 200 accidents a day with a 5% fatality rate.


The best advice we can provide for moped use is as follows. Avoid potholes, and anticipate them as early as possible. Driving over a large developing world pothole at speed and in heavy traffic can be fatal. Drive at a constant low speed, even if just 10mph while going through the traffic. Try, insofar as is possible, to drive predictably. Do not execute sharp turns in the middle of traffic queues. Scan the horizon of vehicles, plan a route through them that involves gentle zig-zags within one or two lines of traffic, and execute it calmly, constantly anticipating other drivers performing eccentric manouevres (a car may suddenly appear from nowhere at right angles as a gap emerges). If you must drive on the wrong side of the road, drive as close to the middle as possible. If you must drive the wrong way down a one-way street, do it slowly, on the left (in a right-hand driving country) and be prepared to pay a hefty bribe if there is a police officer at the end of the street. A cover story about collecting provisions for a local neighbour should accompany the improper payment.


Mopeds are probably the future for the most adventurous travellers in hostile environments. They are not stopped so much by the Police, and they dramatically reduce travel time. But the only way, unfortunately, to become skilled in driving a moped in so dangerous an environment is to do it, take a good helmet and a kevlar-padded jacket, and be ready for a crash. After you've picked yourself up off of the pavement two or three times, you'll have learned how to do it.


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