Gridlock, Libyan Style

Gridlock, Libyan Style

TRIPOLI — There’s a joke that Libyans tell about their driving habits. A Tripoli driver zooms through a red light at full speed. When his foreign passenger protests, the Libyan responds, "Don’t worry, I’m a professional." At the next red light, the driver does the same, once again reassuring his nervous guest. "It’s okay, I’m a professional." The next traffic light is green — and this time the drive stops. "Why are you stopping?" asks the nonplussed foreigner. The Libyan shrugs: "You never know when there might be another professional around." 

If you want to understand life in Libya, driving around it is a good way to start. Libya is huge (three times the size of France), and public transportation is virtually non-existent. Abundant oil resources and generous subsidies make gasoline cheaper than bottled water. So it’s no wonder that Libyans spend a lot of time in their cars. 

The revolution has made it much easier to indulge. The overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi effectively nullified his government’s long-standing restrictions on car imports, and the number of vehicles on the roads has correspondingly exploded. By one estimate, the port city of Misrata, which boasts Libya’s best container terminal, brought in 250,000 cars last year alone (not bad for a country of 5.6 million people). Most come from used car markets in Europe and elsewhere, resulting in many a surreal sighting on Libyan roads. Vehicles festooned with Korean characters, ads for companies in Estonia, or stickers proclaiming the attractions of the Black Forest are just part of the mix. (Fortunately, few of the drivers in this overwhelmingly Muslim country seem to take offense at the "Praise Jesus!" inscriptions on cars brought in from the United States.) An SUV in Misrata proudly bears its original Texas license plate. 

Yet Libya is poorly equipped to deal with the influx — a metaphor, perhaps, for a country that still hasn’t figured out what to do with its newfound freedoms. Tripoli, a city that combines narrow streets with immense urban sprawl, is dramatically ill-equipped to deal with the million or so cars that now throng its thoroughfares. The zero-sum mentality of the capital’s drivers, who habitually force their way into the smallest available chink of space, adds to the gridlock. In Tripoli, "blocking the box" at the center of an intersection is not a sin; it’s just what one does.  

It’s tempting to draw a parallel between mores on the road and the country’s dysfunctional post-revolutionary political system. The every-man-for-himself attitude of Libyan drivers (yes, almost all of them are male) reflects the same debilitating lack of social trust that plagues the country as a whole: A Libyan behind the wheel is potentially a one-person militia. (When my Libyan friend exchanged words with a particularly aggressive Tripolitanian who cut us off in a traffic jam, the other driver jumped out and attacked him with a tire iron. My friend got away with a nasty scratch, but we were just happy that the attacker didn’t have a gun in his trunk.) 

The anarchy on the roads can be daunting. If the statistics are to be believed, Libya boasts the highest proportional rate of traffic fatalities in the world — and anyone who’s spent time on the roads here is likely to be a believer. During my ten days in the country I’ve seen more accidents than I can count — several of them the devastating results of high-speed collisions. (Among the many disconcerting habits of Libyan drivers is their penchant for hurtling towards each other head-on in an effort to gain a bit of strategic advantage for that precious left turn.) 

To be sure, Libyans’ bad driving habits don’t come out of a vacuum. (One 2009 study is titled "Road Traffic Accidents in Libya: An Undeclared War.") Yet the general breakdown of central authority (reflected, among other things, by a lack of traffic police) is certainly making things even worse. The mounting unpredictability of daily life adds to the challenges. Returning to Tripoli from a long-distance trip one day, my driver and I saw a car burning fiercely at the side of the highway. "I think it was a bomb," he said. But there was no way of knowing for sure. 

And yet there are some signs of hope. One manifestation of the post-revolutionary era is the makeshift speed bump, which local people build at their own expense to protect their neighborhoods from speeding drivers. ("Civil society in action," as one of my diplomat friends wryly noticed.) Late one night, we came across an intersection where the traffic light had been disabled by a blackout — yet the flow of cars was proceeding with remarkable smoothness. It turned out that two ordinary Tripolitanians had decided to step into the breach by acting as impromptu traffic cops. Perhaps there is light at the end of the road.

Christian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab.