10 tips for driving in Addis Ababa

I’m writing this for foreign drivers who plan to drive in Addis. If you don’t know what to expect in Addis then put your eyes on first gear and read on!

0. Basics

  • License: When in Addis, ask your country’s embassy to get your license certified for you. You will then have to visit the transport authority to get a license to drive. This manual and tedious process is worth it only if you plan to stay in Addis for a reasonably long time or if driving is important to your short stay. People also get around by taxis, hire a driver or get friends to drive them.
  • Speed limit: 60 kph (37 mph) in urban areas and 100 kph (62 mph) outside.
  • Insurance: Recently passed law requires third party insurance. Insurers pay out if whoever was driving the car had a driving license (this may change in the future).
  • Drive on the right side, overtake on left, anticlockwise on roundabouts
  • It is illegal to use mobile phones while driving

1. Check your car
Check your car is fully functional. Test turn signals, head lights, door locks, wipers, and check spare tire. Although an increasing number of automatic cars are being imported, most cars in Ethiopia remain stick shift. Check also both front and back number plates are present.

2. Watch out for pedestrians
Perhaps this is the first point all drivers should be aware of. Poor road conditions, unavailability of pedestrian crossings, lack of sidewalks and poor road safety awareness all contribute to high accident rates. Pedestrians can suddenly step out from the sidewalk onto the road or a teenager may cross a highway after jumping over the guard rail. Another problem is animals. Stray dogs and cats are run over by cars. Drive slowly in busy areas and be attentive all the time. Don’t expect others will respect road rules.

3. Keep your distance
Addis is built on a highland. Older cars are challenged by the steep roads in Addis. Some old cars by the way can be exported to Europe and US to be sold as classic cars. So if you are a business person in Addis and it is not going well for you, then you can take comfort knowing there is always a backup business plan for you. Keep a good distance from the car in front of you when you come to a traffic stop. Big trucks and buses are the ones to be most careful about. Practice with the handbrake if you are not comfortable with starting and stopping in steep roads.

4. Anger management
Addis taxis are painted blue and white. You will recognize them the day you arrive in the city. There are minicabs and minibuses. The minibuses are notorious for breaking road rules. Unless you see a minibus on the day it arrived in Addis, it will almost definitely have several dents on its body. Minibuses have stations where they pick up and drop off the majority of their passengers but passengers can get off upon request as well. So they go about their route constantly picking up and dropping passengers. Expect minibuses to suddenly break or forcefully enter your lane. Military car drivers are also known for their reckless driving. There aren’t many of them around, luckily.

5. Traffic lights and traffic police
There are plenty of junctions without traffic lights. In the absence of traffic lights, you must be attentive, assertive, slow and quick all at the same time as this timelapse video clearly demonstrates. If traffic police are regulating traffic then their hand signals override traffic lights. There are no speed or red light cameras in Addis. Traffic police blow their whistle to ask drivers to stop. Although some of them have motorbikes, it will be a lifetime before Addis drivers can witness a high-speed chase. If you hear a whistle, stop only if you see traffic police looking towards your direction. Minibuses get the whistle most of the time. In the very rare scenario that you are stopped by traffic police, pull to the side and get out of your car to chat to the police. Being nice can save you a ticket. You might think fines are small but wait until you see the bureaucratic system when you try to pay the fine.

6. Keep emergency contacts
Instead of insurance with car breakdown cover, Addis drivers have a network of friends they can reach out for. Always have contacts you can call.

7. Theft
Most theft is aimed at small items inside cars, such as phones, bags and clothing. Outside elements prone to stealing are the lights, wipers and number plates. Do not leave anything that can attract thieves. Take it out when you leave, put it inside a compartment or in the trunk. Some drivers take out their car radio/CD player as well. But I wouldn’t worry about theft any more than I do in other major cities. Forget mobile phones. In London losing a Range Rover you spent your fortune on has become common. So just tuck things away, lock your door, and if possible park in a secure area. It is common for companies and restaurants to hire security guards for their parking areas. In some places neighborhood kids may tell you they will watch over your car and ask you for a bit of money when you return. It should not be misinterpreted as intimidation. They haven’t done any work besides hanging out with their friends in their neighbourhood. They know that. You can safely drive off after a simple thank you or “Amesegnalehu”.

8. Parking
Parking fees are relatively cheaper than other busy cities. In chargeable areas parking attendants put a ticket on your windshield with the current time on it. You pay when you come back. Take care when parking beyond the end of the parking time. You will face a fine if the parking attendant leaves without collecting the fee. Ask for the closing time. If there is a chance you can stay beyond that time then just pay all of right away instead of worrying about it later.

9. Weather and road conditions
Addis has dry and rainy seasons. There is no snow. The rainy season can bring heavy showers with hail. Showers are usually brief. So you can wait for it to finish if it makes you uncomfortable to drive. In the dry season you will quickly learn that parking your car in the afternoon sun is a great way to get yourself baked. Day and night are evenly divided throughout the year. It always becomes completely dark latest by 7:30 PM. If your headlights are not automatic remember to put them on. Many streets are poorly lit or have no lighting at all. You may want to switch to full beam but remember to notch it down when other cars go past you or when you follow another car closely. Trucks coming into Addis from other cities are the ones that usually leave their full beam on. Slow down if bright light blocks your view. Roads in Addis are being improved at a very high pace but you still find rugged and muddy roads. Just because it is a road with tire marks on it doesn’t mean you should drive on it. Commonly damaged parts are front bumpers and mufflers (silencers). To defeat a big bump try driving over it diagonally or retreat to find a better route.

10. Talk to people
As a driver in Addis you will need help with directions. Your car is broken doesn’t mean you are left in a desert to die. Ethiopians are helpful and welcoming people. Helping each other is how people get by. Pretty much everyone in Addis speaks Amharic and it is easy to find someone who can speak enough English to give you directions. Try to communicate with people with a combination of your limited Amharic, English and hand gestures. Avoid staying inside a small comfortable circle where everything is provided for you. You will make the best out of your stay by experiencing the city and its people first hand.

Conclusion
Although I raised several points to be careful about, driving in Addis is not just gripping onto your wheels expecting a horrible accident. Problems can be avoided if you are aware of them before hand. Addis is a fun city and driving is the best way to get around. After you have successfully driven in the Merkato area of Addis, come tell us your experience and we will give you a free T-Shirt to certify you as “Addis driver”.

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