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My solution for surviving Ugandan traffic: Carrie Underwood

By J. Adam Calaway, Director of Communications and Public Relations

Posted May 27, 2013

Jesus take the wheel!

— Carrie Underwood

Driving in Ugandan traffic will change your life; mostly because you'll constantly see it flash before your eyes.

Imagine this: Take the majority of Kampala's 1.7 million people and put half of them on the road - in one form or another - at the same time.

Now, take away all road signs, traffic signals and directional markings. They have a few, but they're mainly for decoration.

Subtract the grid layout of the United States' roads and highways. Most roads in Kampala go in circles. If you look at a map of Kampala, it looks like a spider's web, overlaid by another spider's web.

Now decrease the width of the roads and increase the number of lanes - two lanes become three or four, four lanes become 26 (that might be an exaggeration). In fact, just erase any lane lines because they are irrelevant.

Here would be a good place to define "roads." Ugandan roads are anything that is passable, no matter the depth of the canyonesque potholes. Sure, many are blacktops like the U.S., but others are dirt roads, trails or walking paths. If it's wide enough, it can be driven on.

Now add in thousands of boda-bodas (motorcycles/scooters, often used as taxis) that weave through the larger vehicles like they are chasing James Bond in the beginning of a movie.

On a side note: bodas are borderline magic. I have seen people haul an entire family of four, tin roofing and hundreds of pounds of fruit. Others have actually seen coffins (with the body) tied to the back. All this defies the laws of physics, but no one seems to notice.

Now add in the pedestrians, thousands of pedestrians, either manning their roadside stores or standing inches from the edge of the road as countless rearview mirrors whiz by their heads. This includes children, who learn from an early age to be mindful of the roads.

Then there is the rate of motion. Kampala traffic has two rates - warp speed or gridlock. Basic rule: You go as fast as you can for as long as you can, and then usually you hit traffic or speed humps (not bumps) to slow you down. And speed humps are everywhere.

Undoubtedly this traffic takes the blue ribbon for one of the most challenging driving settings on the planet. It certainly tops any city in the United States. But, Adam, you say, I've driven in Los Angeles (not even close), Chicago (pansies drive in Chicago), New York City (Quit. You're embarrassing yourself).

At first blush, anarchy does seem to rule the road here, but after I erased my expectations, a new pattern emerged. Instead of a highly regimented system of lights and signs, Kampala traffic flows like blood through arteries. It's jumbled, messy, crossing down every which path, but still flowing and natural. Most importantly, despite the chaotic feel for visitors, the Ugandans are relaxed and calm. There is no such thing as road rage or fear.

I am not a Ugandan, however. I flinch. I gasp. I spend most of the car rides quietly singing "Jesus, take the wheel" by Carrie Underwood.

On the other hand, Simon, our driver for most of the week, has no reaction as he navigates clogged byways; dodges bodas, potholes and pedestrians who often run across the highway; and weaves through the endless back roads. His intuitive navigation skills and steely nerves are a sight to behold.

I've decided I'm going to bring Simon, Joe and a handful of Kampala's taxi drivers back to the United States and start a NASCAR team. I'd win every race.

Of course, they would probably be bored driving on a smooth road, in a circle, at only 200 miles per hour.

A few rules of the road:

  • You're not "close" to something until you hit it with your rearview mirror.
  • Right-of-way belongs to the largest vehicle.
  • Pedestrians do not have the right-of-way. They have the right to get out of the way.
  • Taxis are everywhere. They are usually white minivans circled with blue checkers.
  • Honking your horn is not a sign of frustration. It just means, "Hey, I'm coming through. Push over."
  • Flashing your lights does not mean there is a police officer ahead like in the U.S. It simply means, "I'm coming through" or "I see you. Do you see me?"

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