SGT. 1ST CLASS CELIA HODGE
U.S. Army Central, Safety
Camp Arifjan, Kuwait
I am currently deployed to Kuwait. While I don’t have much interaction with the locals, I do occasionally leave the safety of Camp Arifjan and venture into Kuwait City. When I do, I always find myself in a chaotic driving free-for-all.
Driving in Kuwait City reminds me of the movie “Mad Max.” There are hazards everywhere! I have to be alert, with all my senses and brain working at the same time. The first time I drove off post, I was a nervous wreck. In fact, it took me almost two weeks to get enough confidence to drive into Kuwait City again.
When I took the class for my Kuwait driver’s license, the instructors told us we’d encounter hazardous and challenging conditions. To drive the point home, they showed us pictures of just what “hazardous” meant. I told myself it couldn’t really be that bad. The instructors surely had to be exaggerating. I quickly found out, however, they were spot on with their assessment. Still, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the things I saw on the road and the locals’ careless driving habits.
For example, it is commonplace to see children standing and moving around inside vehicles, going from front to back freely without restraint. They also regularly sit on dashboards and hang out windows and sunroofs. Women are often seen holding children and feeding babies while driving.
Texting and driving is also a huge problem. To make matters worse, some of these drivers are in vehicles overloaded with merchandise or oversized furniture. Apparently, tie-down procedures don’t exist here, as evidenced by the debris and personal belongings littering the roads.
There are rules of the road and posted speed limits, but the majority of drivers do not obey them. Speeding is a big problem. It seems everyone is in a hurry. There are no so-called “safe” lanes. The right and middle lanes are just as dangerous as the left. If a driver wants to pass you, it does not matter how much room he or she has. They will pass you regardless. And it isn’t unusual to see a driver come from the extreme left lane to get to his exit on the extreme right, cutting across four lanes of traffic. Of course, this is all done without turn signals.
Perhaps the most mindboggling of all is to see drivers back up or go the wrong way because they missed their exits, bringing the traffic to a standstill and taking a few side mirrors with them. One day, I witnessed an ambulance with lights flashing and siren blaring, trying to get through the chaos. It could not move and no one tried to get out of the way. I prayed for the sick person in that emergency vehicle.
Drag racing is another major hazard here. It is normal to see beautiful, high-powered cars with engines that are designed for raceways weaving in and out of traffic at a high rate of speed and performing stunts. These are the most dangerous situations because you literally have to get out of the way as best as you can, which means being reckless yourself.
The roundabouts are especially hazardous places, and Kuwait City has an abundance of them. No one seems to know who has the right of way because everyone tries to go through the circle as if they are in a video game. Navigating a roundabout is one of the most dangerous feats to pull off. Once you make it out of the circle you can breathe a sigh of relief, but you are still not in the clear until you are back at the entrance of the base camp.
A risk management worksheet is mandatory to leave the post and it is not just filled out frivolously. It is signed and dated by a colonel. It identifies all the known hazards — a true picture of what you will encounter on the roads in Kuwait — which will allow you develop and implement controls to mitigate the risk.
I’ve now driven in Kuwait often enough that I’ve become more relaxed than I was on my first trip downtown, but I’ll never let down my guard when on the road. When leaving the safety of the post, I have to be an extra-cautious defensive driver. I always have to be on alert, which means scanning all my mirrors (sides and rearview) and having the vehicle commander clear me on the right when trying to exit main highways. I do not look for other drivers to help. That’s just not going to happen.
If you ever find yourself driving in Kuwait, trust your training. Believe me, you’ll need it.