MASHHAD, Iran – Trying to get an Iranian driver’s license provides insight into why the country is a world leader in traffic fatalities. No one in Iran takes driver’s education seriously, not even the driving schools.
I’m sitting in a basement classroom along with a dozen men and women, waiting to start the first of five classroom sessions needed to qualify for on-the-road driving lessons, here in Mashhad, the country’s second largest city.
I registered at Iran Zamin driving school on the school’s promise that I could finish within five days. That was three weeks ago; the school simply cancelled classes week after week, sometimes only hours before the scheduled class.
To an outsider, few things in Iran are as frightening as the roads, where signs and lane markers, if present and not washed out yet, are totally disregarded; where bikes and motorcycles and pedestrians freely mix with constantly swerving cars and trucks and buses, tearing past millimeters of each other, off the asphalt, on the shoulder, and over the median, relentlessly and ruthlessly competing for every possible advantage. YouTube has many samples of Iranians’ bizarre driving habits.
The World Health Organization designated Iran as the world leader in traffic fatalities in 2012, even though the 22,918 deaths that year were less than the 27,759 killed in 2005. Mashhad’s accident rate ranks among Iran’s top three.
The country has strict driving laws – but has poor enforcement, roads, cars and emergency services – including tough penalties for driving without a driver’s license. It does not recognize the driver’s license of some other countries, hence my attempt at scholarship at Iran Zamin.
Now the teacher walks in, a 30-something Ms. Saleminan (SAW-leh-mian), who introduces herself as a law student. She says her job is to explain which parts of the book are going to be on the exam four days from now.
But the school doesn’t yet have any books to hand out, she says. “So why don’t you all go upstairs and ask if there are old books you can borrow for now.”
Everyone gets up and meanders outside, into the rain and up to the school lobby. No, we have no books to lend you, the perplexed-looking receptionist informs. We shuffle back downstairs.
Ms. Salemian begins: “Okay, now those of you who have books, turn to page 26.”
There is no movement because no one has the book, except one guy who has an older version with page numbers that do not match the teacher’s.
“Okay, on the bottom of page 26, the part about the pedestrian crossing lane, that’s very important. It’s going to be on the test for sure,” she continues.
I look around. One young woman is doodling. Another is texting on her phone. One guy is busy scratching his back with a ruler.
“Okay, on page 27, you see all the different types of road lanes. You need to be able to identify all these for the exam, okay?”
I can’t stop myself from checking out stone-faced classmates. Is this more Kafka or Aziz Nesin? I ask myself. I decide it is more Nesin.
When she gets to the road signs, Ms. Salemian suddenly seems to remember that her students cannot see what she is talking about.
“Okay, how about I draw some of them for you?” She gets up, walks to the whiteboard and tries to draw. The marker doesn’t work. She tries another marker and then a third one. None work. She sits back down and continues.
“As you can see, there are two types of alert signs, the round type with red edges and the triangular type, also with red edges. The difference between these two signs will be on the exam for sure.”
It was at the end of the session when she dropped a bombshell: the school expects to have a book for every student the next day, but the book won’t have all the information required to pass the exam! That information is only in “the old book” that is no longer published.
I ask how are we to obtain the old book.
“You need to find someone who took this class last year and ask to borrow their book,” she says.
I wait for someone to point out the obvious but there’s more silence. So I ask, “Ma’am, it’s a city of four million people; how do you suggest we find a student who attended this class last year?”
And every face in the room is on me; I guess my challenge was interpreted as disrespectful.
She starting packing up to leave. “Well, that book isn’t that important anyway. Just try your best.”
Twenty minutes later, I’m standing outside the school, wondering how to locate “the old book.” I tried to buy the classmate’s but he jacked up his price many folds when he realized I come from abroad.
Then an older student approaches. “You’re from abroad, aren’t you? You shouldn’t take this stuff that seriously. Just sit next to me and I’ll help you through the exam.”
His hair is graying; appears to be in his late 40’s. He introduces himself as a marketing expert and a professor at the prestigious Ferdowsi University of Mashhad.
He says he has been driving all his adult life but till now “didn’t think much about getting a driver’s license.” (“ما ثا حالاش زیاد توی بهرثصدیق رانندگی نپودیم”).
Things changed after he hit and killed a pedestrian. The judge didn’t ask about his lack of driver’s license, so it didn’t count against him. But “it’s getting tougher to talk yourself out of trouble when you get stopped these days,” he says. “So I figured I come in and get myself a license. It’s no big deal.”
He then gets in his car and drives away.
The next day I’m at the police department because the school demanded a written letter before offering me the oral version of the exam. I had failed the written exam once before, during a prior visit to Iran, because of my difficulty at reading Farsi.
Colonel Hussein Davari (DAW-va-ree), a giant of a man with a habit of modulating between bluster and amenity, sits under a painting of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini inscribed with the following quote: “Disobedience of driving laws is religiously unlawful.”
Petitioners have to go through two minions before they get to salute the colonel and blurt out their request before his attention wanders or someone else elbows in.
When he hears my story, he immediately calls the school.
“I just heard something that shocked me, my dear man,” he barked at Iran Zamin’s bureaucrat on the other end. “In our country, we have a problem with people not being familiar with the rules.
“Listen, it doesn’t matter he’s gone to college. Anyone can take the oral exam.
“Tell me, how else would you have him pass the exam if he can’t read the questions?”
Ah, finally! I can almost see the beautiful ray of logic that left the colonel’s mouth, flew past my nose and through the window into the sunshine outside.
The very next instant the colonel switches to customary pleasantries, as if the bureaucrat is his dearest friend. “Let me tell you how dear you are to us. I die for you.” (“.من قربانه شما پشم”)
I leave the police station a happy man because this time I am going to have a fighting chance at passing the driver’s exam.
It’s warm outside. The sun is shining because it rained all night and cleared out a lot of the smog that ordinarily blocks the sky.
At the crosswalk, I hold my breath and begin tiptoeing my way across, dodging drivers rushing past with not so much as a tiny tiny acknowledgement that there’s a crosswalk or a human life is centimeters away.
Once again I swear some of them are aiming for me. It’s paranoia, I am told, every newcomer goes through.