Illustrative image: Policemen manning a checkpoint in the King Fahad main street in the capital Riyadh. Image Credit: AFP

I bumped into an Australian couple the other night at a delicatessen. Having briefly met me before, they proceeded to vent all that was bottled inside them with the request that I air some of their outpourings in one of my columns.

The husband was adamant that I include the sorry state of motoring in the kingdom. He had several issues on the manner of street navigation, and in between placing orders for the different types of olives, he proceeded to list them down for me.

Now I have covered this issue in columns past. But I was in a genial mood, and had not yet decided upon my selection of cheeses yet. I had some time, and what better way to spend it than to sponge off their frustrations as I calmly nibbled on bits of Swiss gruyere samplers.

The ‘split second’ syndrome was uppermost in his mind. That’s that micro moment between the traffic signal turning green, and the message getting transmitted to your processing cells to push down your foot and accelerate. If you are not mentally coordinated and don’t get it just right, you are sure to be honked incessantly by the vehicle behind you. That’s why your foot stays warily by the accelerator pedal even at stop signs. You just don’t want to be caught unprepared.

There you sit waiting patiently for the light to change, nervous and sweating as you tightly clutch the steering wheel. Your fingers sweat lightly, while a wave of panic forms in some distant corner of your brain. Your pulse rises noticeably, while your eyes are transfixed on the traffic signal.

You are oblivious to the outside world, except for those three traffic lights. Occasionally, you glance nervously through the rear-view mirror at the menacing figure behind the wheel in the vehicle just to your rear. If it is a juggernaut such as a large GMC suburban, or a souped up 4-wheeler, and you are stuck in a small Korean import, chances are your anxiety levels have risen dramatically by now.

With the mental alertness of an athlete, taking off at the sound of the start gun in a 100-metre dash at the Olympics, you propel your vehicle forward as soon as the light turns green. Or at least when the signal reaches your brain. And what of the honker?

He glances at you disdainfully as he overtakes you in the middle of the intersection with a burst of speed, often adding to his looks a gesture possibly mistaken as one of solidarity or universal brotherhood. And if you get it just right and manage to take off without a horn sounding, a genuine feeling of satisfaction envelopes your being. You feel warm and happy at that moment. You’ve miraculously avoided being at the receiving end of honking abuse.

He continued on his next theory. There is also the ‘sandwich syndrome’ he explained. That frequently happens to a hapless motorist who is trapped between a hesitant driver ahead of him, and a road warrior behind. On occasions, the driver in front may stop at a traffic light, open the car door and blow his nose onto the street. Or he may feel like clearing the phlegm at the back of his throat, thus adding more condiments to an already littered road. While he’s doing that, heavens forbid if you honk or distract him.

He will then take his time to reach for a box of Kleenex in the back seat and wipe away remnants of his sweat. If so inclined, he may decide to clean out the trash in his car as well, thus forcing you to wait through the traffic light changes. The street serves as a large litter box. Or he may be social enough to carry a long conversation with the motorist next to him. You sit there patiently, wary of inducing his wrath and praying the call of nature does not knock on his door anytime soon.

That does not stop the motorist behind you from subjecting you to several impatient blasts of his horn. He seems to hold you responsible for this deed. He may even inch his car forward and give you a nudge to get on your way. This ménage a trois of steel and aluminium roadsters is a very helpless feeling indeed. And if you happen to be a foreigner, it’s best in moments like this to reflect on spiritual matters and pray silently.

And as this Australian gentleman continued his tirades against road safety violations, everything from speeding to lack of traffic law enforcement, from lack of fines to ignorance in approaching roundabouts, I reassured him that I would indeed address this problem, and also focus on several consumer rights issues his wife managed to raise.

And for some strange reason, when I slowed down to a stop at the next traffic light, I began to focus with more alertness than usual on the signal itself!

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena