I drove for the first time this past weekend. The last time I drove was during a final rush hour trip to National Airport back in June. Not since I first got my license back in 1988 have I gone this long without driving. My not driving was a conscious decision. I've spent the past 2 1/2 months walking where I needed to go (which is actually quite easy to do here) and relying on Glenn, friends or GSO to bring me to more distant destinations. I decided that it was finally time to conquer my fear.
I've always gotten a certain charge from driving in traffic. Rush hour on the Beltway? Bring it on. Navigating Boston's streets during the height of the Big Dig construction? An adrenaline rush. There is nothing like being alone in a car on an open- or not so open- road to get away from it all.
So what was it about Albanian traffic that prevented me from getting behind the wheel? Its not my driving skills that worry me; its the other drivers. Glenn has been reminding me since we arrived that I have been driving far longer than most Albanians. That is all fine and dandy but it doesn't make me feel any safer. Despite the plethora of driving schools in Tirana, the majority of Albanian drivers seem to have a complete disregard for traffic laws. (I have no idea what is actually taught in these schools but I doubt the curriculum resembles that of the school I attended way back when).
Most roads don't have lines or lane markings. Those that are marked are so faded that they are practically unrecognizable. This results in drivers speeding towards whatever open space is available. Its not uncommon to see three rows of cars coming your way on what should be a two lane road. Playing chicken with on-coming traffic seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Cars will speed around you, passing on the right, only to immediately cut you off. Legal on street parking is practically non-existent so drivers will just stop their cars and double or triple park in front of their desired destinations.
I've noticed that the majority of intersections in Tirana have both stop signs and traffic lights. This DOES NOT actually stop traffic however. Instead of traffic lights being situated over or in front of intersections, they tend to be located off to the far right of the driving lane causing the driver to have to crane their neck backwards to see the light color. And that is if the lights are working. On any given day it seems as though half of the lights simply aren't working. I naively thought that the stop signs were a contingency plan for when the lights aren't working. That apparently isn't the case since people don't stop for them either.
Traffic circles, of which there are many in Albania, are equally scary. Yes, most traffic does move to the right but without lane markings traffic is a chaotic mess reminiscent of a scene from Richard Scary's BusyTown. It a driver is in the far left "lane" but wants to immediately exit the circle on the right, they do so by cutting across four, six, or eight lanes of traffic. Why? Because they want to.
A pedestrian crosswalk with a traffic light was recently installed in front of the U.S. Embassy. Most American drivers seem to stop for the red light but very few other drivers do. In some ways this safety measure that should make it easier for pedestrians is actually more dangerous since one car will stop and a variety of cars, trucks, and mopeds will zip around the stopped car. The first time I tried to cross the road I felt as though I was taking my life into my own hands. No wonder I was so afraid of driving.
I found out that driving is like riding a bicycle. Once you get back in the driver's seat you pick up where you left off. I turned up the radio- albeit to an Albanian station- and carefully took off down the street. I dodged the crater-sized pothole at the end of our road and relished in my regained freedom. I didn't tackle any traffic circles but I did pass through several busy intersections with malfunctioning traffic lights. Watch out Albania, there's another driver on the road and this one will stop for red lights.