Page last updated at 11:14 GMT, Saturday, 2 May 2009 12:14 UK

Cairo's terrifying traffic chaos

Christian Fraser discovers that a brush with death on Cairo's congested roads leaves no appetite for life in the fast lane.

Traffic on the roads of Cairo
Cairo's roads have constant traffic jams and claim many lives

Life in Cairo is a do or die race, in which you trample or are trampled. The traffic here is so bad those of a faint disposition will not long survive the daily commute.

The struggle with overcrowded roads is complicated by a lack of any respect for traffic lights or policemen. There is no semblance of lane discipline.

Modern Cairo was built to house four million people. It has now swelled to some 17 million which is why narrow two-way streets on the banks of the River Nile, are by 0900 local time transformed into four-lane carriageways.

Drivers swerve with the greatest dexterity into the tiniest of spaces. Nearly every car or bus carries the scars of battle.

Of course spare parts are expensive, no-one has insurance and claiming for damage is about as worthwhile as dowsing for water in the desert.

The rules are pretty simple. Full-beam headlights and blaring horns somewhere behind usually mean you are about to be overtaken - or undertaken - at high speed, even though there is no space between your car and that concrete wall beside you.

Hurtling taxis

Skyline of Cairo
The Egyptian capital is full of drivers that have never taken a driving test

My worst experience of this highway madness came just the other morning.

For a country that invented precision-engineered pyramids, its taxis are primitive, in all the wrong ways.

The upholstery of my taxi was the cheap nylon kind that delivers electric shocks to sweaty thighs.

And it offered no handles with which to wind down the windows, no escape from the sweltering heat you feel even at this time of the year.

This was truly one of Egypt's great antiquities, of which Abdu, my driver, was distinctly proud.

As we hurtled along the ring road, at speeds this jalopy was never meant to pass, Abdu leant into the back seat to reassure me he had learnt his driving in the army.

Lucky, since his chance to show off his defensive manoeuvres was waiting just around the next corner.

At 90km/h (60mph), he slammed on the brakes and slewed across the road as a traffic jam hidden by the bend waited in ambush.

With the brakes performing minor miracles, the clapped out Fiat eventually shuddered and spluttered, quite literally to a dead halt.

We had broken down, right there, in the middle of a four-lane carriageway, 18m - but a very long way - from the sanctuary of the hard shoulder.

In the back seat I could feel my posterior tightening.

National sport

By now the flow of traffic had resumed and cars were whizzing past the window, with increasing velocity and proximity.

Egyptians, it seems, only use wing mirrors for the angle they afford on the carnage behind them

Gingerly, Abdu tried to squeeze his way out of the door, twice retreating to save his imperilled feet before finally making it to the bonnet armed with a bottle of water.

Oblivious to the dangerous predicament in which he now found himself, he put his ear to the engine like a doctor searching for a beating heart.

With an oily rag he unscrewed the radiator cap, which erupted into the air, under volcanic pressure. Abdu poured his precious water through the steam, grinning back at me with a gap-toothed smile. This was clearly a tried and tested method.

Ironically, the congestion that had brought us to this standstill was formed of rubberneckers, craning to look at the grisly aftermath of a five-car pile up on the other side.

I am quickly discovering this is a national sport. Egyptians, it seems, only use wing mirrors for the angle they afford on the carnage behind them.

New penalties

The official accident statistics in Egypt suggest that only 6,000 people die on the roads each year. Many Egyptians would readily testify it is a figure that hopelessly underestimates the true extent of the daily tragedy.

Map of Cairo and Egypt

The government is well aware of the problem. They have recently started a campaign to promote ''discipline in the streets".

The new penalties include prison sentences for offences such as speeding, eating and drinking while at the wheel, or travelling with a baby in the front seat, which is another common practice.

At the time the new law was passed, most Egyptians scoffed. No-one, they said, could untangle Cairo's traffic congestion or restore order in a city where hardly anyone has ever taken a driving test.

And it is true that some policemen do still turn a blind eye to even the worst offences.

But the sands of time might be running out for the likes of Abdu. The authorities insist they will not be renewing licenses of any taxis older than 20 years - which by my cursory survey appear to be the vast majority.

One minister said some of these cars are so unroadworthy that drivers often lose control and find themselves in a ditch at the side of the road. I can certainly vouch for that theory.

But then the one benefit of taking your life in your hands each morning is the insanely low fare. It costs me $1.50 (£1) to travel half an hour into town - some 15km (10 miles).

And as Abdu and I finally resumed our laboured journey into work, I realised that if these new measures create a taxi shortage, this might encourage ever more Egyptians to take to the roads in their own cars - and that is scarcely a less terrifying prospect.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 2 May, 2009 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service

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