Why do we drive so badly in the rain?

Cape Town - 130821 - Heavy rain on Loop street - Photo: Henk Kruger

Cape Town - 130821 - Heavy rain on Loop street - Photo: Henk Kruger

Published Jun 2, 2015


Cape Town - Mahatma Gandhi, that peaceful, possibly racist man who looked good in dresses, once said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

If you asked polar bears what they thought of this, they’d snort and say with tired, fishy breath: “Then the whole world is verily knackered.”

Over the decades, other benchmarks of a nation’s “progress” have been introduced. The Big Mac index measures the buying power of the world’s burghers, bread lines map out poverty and fire pools determine whether a president is paranoid about security or merely enjoys a spot of aqua aerobics on a Sunday.

I’d like to suggest another benchmark of a nation’s psychic health: driving.

I recently started working in the CBD. The shift finishes after dark, so I’m unable to rely on the splendour of Metrorail’s torn-up seats and erratic timetables. Instead, I have to drive into the city - something I haven’t done since 1903. Back then, the horses were a bit of a bother and the trams were tedious, but with enough absinthe, I survived.

This was not the case last week. There’s something about rain and Capetonians which, when mixed with a stretch of tar and a few traffic lights, turns even the most reasonable driver into a raving lunatic. It’s as though Capetonians wake up, look out of the window and proclaim: “Good God! It’s raining! I shall have to drive like a wally forthwith.”


In the space of 2.879km, a minibus-taxi flashed its lights and hooted at me for driving through a green light. I turned up the volume of the concerto I was listening to. Flutes feathered and rain made geometry on the windscreen. I did a mental check: lights on, seatbelt on, heater on, Zen chakras on. Breathe. Oooooooooohhhhhm. Oooooooooohhhhhm. Oooooooooohhhhhm. Oooooooooohhhhh-MY-GOD! Two headlights had become glued to my back window. In the rear-view mirror, I could make out the bald head of a man in a silver Mercedes, his blood pressure rising like red mist in the gloom. I applied my brakes to make him back off. He swept past me over a solid white line, his head exploding and his fingers making rude gestures.

On the N2, I trundled in the fast lane behind an old duck in an Atos. She was crouched over the steering wheel like a praying mantis, probably engrossed in a gardening programme. When she eventually pulled into the middle lane, I wanted to open the passenger window and yell: “Plant poison ivy! And stinging nettles! And mushrooms that kill you!”, but the electronic mechanism on the window doesn’t work properly and has a delay, so I would have ended up yelling at a nice man driving sensibly. Or a cop. Or a presidential cavalcade.

By the time I’d found parking in Loop Street - after negotiating pedestrians who cross the road when their auras tell them to, double-parked double cabs full of sodden builders and scooters doubling as Scud missiles - I was ready to quit my job and become a toothpick farmer in Baviaanskloof.


Some might argue there are worse drivers in the world. Indeed, during a three-hour minibus taxi trip in Bolivia recently I prayed I would die. As we careered down mountain passes and came to neck-jolting halts, I silently intoned: “Lord, let the impact be hard and swift and may I not lie maimed and naked on top of the man eating a chicken behind me. Love, Helen.”

However, the difference between bad driving here and in Bolivia - or India or Egypt, for that matter - is that while vehicles in the latter countries inch their way past one another, parping and cursing, there appears to be an organic flow to the process. And statistics back this up: road deaths in those countries are half those in South Africa.

So why are we so rubbish on the roads? Why, when we get behind a wheel, do we become the worst versions of ourselves? There are many obvious reasons: fake licences, a lack of road traffic education, drunk-driving and poor enforcement (trying to spot a traffic officer in Cape Town is like trying to spot a lesser Tasmanian wombat).

However, I believe it goes deeper than that; in our hearts, we’re natural-born wallies, bent on serving only ourselves, isolated from empathy or a sense of community. We could blame apartheid for that, but that would be too easy.

I have spent the past week hatching a plan to get me to work and back. It involves a donkey ride up Devil’s Peak, ziplines down the mountain, a spot of teleporting across the city and a funicular to my desk.

In case that doesn’t work, I’ve engaged the services of an estate agent in Baviaanskloof. He says toothpicks are poised to become a benchmark of civility. Who knows? He might have a point.

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