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Culture : Forget Politics--Tehran's Traffic Can Drive You Mad : The Iranian capital has hundreds of accidents per day. And you won't believe the rules of the road.


TEHRAN — Move over Los Angeles, Rome, Bangkok and Cairo. Tehran has nabbed the dubious distinction of being the world's most chaotic traffic capital.

With an official average of 101 accidents a day, the Iranian city had 10 times as many accidents as the global daily average last year, the Ministry of Roads and Transport admitted. (The rate is a proportional comparison based on the number of cars per population.)

And the unofficial average--which anyone who has ever risked his life on Tehran's anarchic speedways will concur--is as many as 500 accidents a day.

The evidence is overwhelming: Virtually no car moer than a few weeks old is without dents, scratches or unmatched paint patches. They're almost badges of honor.

It's little wonder why.

Tehran has unique rules of the road. Among them:

* To turn right, get in the left lane.

* If you miss your exit on a busy highway, back up.

* All lanes are for passing--forward or backward.

* Red lights mean go.

* Three lanes mean four cars abreast or, during rush hour, five. And if there is no space, take over a lane or, during rush hour, two lanes from oncoming traffic.

* In that spirit, two-way streets often become one-way, just as a one-way street is usually two-way.

* Speed is limitless.

Pleading with taxi drivers to slow down is fruitless. It can even be dangerous.

"No problem, no problem," said one veteran hack, turning around to look at his passenger as his car sped ahead. "I don't have many accidents."

Non-professionals are equally frightening. Said one otherwise meek female who becomes a maniac when she slips behind the wheel, "I have to drive like them to survive. If I drove like you do in America, I'd never get anywhere. I'd still be in my driveway."

The problem is not just congestion. It's also chaos.

Based on unspecified data, Reselaat, a Tehran daily paper, once calculated that Tehranis waste 1.2 billion hours a year trapped in traffic jams--or the equivalent of 136,986 years annually.

It's easy to believe.

"Petrowealth" from the oil boom of the 1970s led almost overnight to a tenfold increase in the number of cars in Iran--roughly 75% of which were in the capital. A million cars were crowded onto Tehran's narrow, labyrinthine streets.

By 1980, the first year of revolutionary zealotry, financial losses related to traffic, including accidents, were estimated at $28 million a day, officials said. The situation got so bad that the former mayor was tried and shot for failing to sort out traffic chaos, among other charges.

Tehran's population has at least doubled since then. But some officials say the number of cars in the capital has tripled, to as many as 3 million.

The government briefly tried banning all private cars from the streets from dawn to dusk. It was a boon to Tehran's orange taxis. But the plan was a bust for workers in a city with no subway and limited bus service and was abandoned.

Construction of a subway--to cover 62 miles of the capital with stops at 140 stations--was launched just before the revolution. But, between a draining eight-year war with Iraq and the exploding population, the system has been beyond reach and has yet to ferry a single passenger.

For years, the government tried banning imports of all foreign cars--producing a multiyear waiting list for Iran's boxy, homemade Paykans--to curtail the number of vehicles on the roads. Tehran's current mayor, as a compromise, is trying to control the crisis by limiting access to the downtown area during working hours.

But in troubled economic times, when as many as 50% of Tehranis are underemployed, the police who monitor the stickers can often be bought off for a few pennies. Meanwhile, forgers produce fake permits.

In desperation, Iran's judiciary in 1992 increased eightfold the "blood money" compensation paid for any action causing someone's death--a move pointedly directed at fatal traffic accidents.

The payment, known as diyeh , was increased to $50,000 in cash or kind. Offenders traditionally have the option of paying in camels, cows, sheep, silk dresses, gold coins, silver coins or cash.

In a country with a per capita income of $1,400, however, $50,000 can amount to a lifetime's earnings.

The regulation led bus drivers to strike--until the state-run bus company pledged to cover the drivers' diyeh insurance, which is a basic part of most Iranian motorists' coverage.

Motorcycles are now the only guaranteed means of getting anywhere on time. It's not unusual to see a whole family packed aboard--mom, pop, a couple of tots, even an occasional infant.

But even motorbikes have their liabilities, especially for Iranian women who, with their black chadors flailing in the wind, have to be careful. Dozens of women have been killed in accidents caused when their chadors got caught in the wheels.

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