How to Drive in Iraq

You know that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer adopts a section of the highway? He decided he wants to have double wide lanes for a leisurely driving experience, except it creates complete and utter chaos on the roadway… That’s what driving in Iraqs Kurdistan Region is like!

I, for one 24 hour period, rented a car to go explore the stunning vistas along the Hamilton Road, linking Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, to the Iranian border and said to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. En route to the wonders ahead, I picked up on how to drive like an Iraqi Kurd. A few important lessons:

1) Lanes Don’t Matter

Some roads lack lane markers entirely, but many do have them, giving you the impression that people might be used to them… No, no… Those handy lines on the road mean absolutely nothing. Why not drive between lanes? Heck, why not drive on the shoulder? Oh wait, the shoulder is a lane too, or, whatever you want to call it…

In short, the roadway is like a big river. Faster cars weave around one another. And sometimes slower cars just drift in the roadway as if they were having a nice relaxing drive in Kramer’s wide lanes.

Except for an outsider, driving with no concept of lanes isn’t relaxing…it means you’ve gotta stay on your toes!

2) Your 4-Way Flashers (Hazard Lights) Mean a Lot!

Slowing down? Turn on those 4-way flashers! You know, the ones you usually turn on if you, say, pull over on the side of the road when you have a problem? Or the ones you use if you’re temporarily leaving your car behind on the side of the road? Yeah, those.

See, Kurdistan is full of speed bumps, so many drivers, especially taxis, will turn on their lights when they slow down to head over them. It’s not actually a bad idea as they’re a bit more visible than break lights! Or, as my friend living in Iraq put it, “Dude, turn on your lights, you’re gonna get hit!”

Upper Hamilton Road

A section of the Upper Hamilton Road

3) Turn Signals and Slow Driving are for Wimps

Letting others around you know that you’re turning or changing lanes is certainly nice, though with no real lanes, why would you need to do that? Yes, the turn signal is frequently not used, you just go for it. No break in traffic? Doesn’t matter…just barge right in!

And speeding? That’s normal just about anywhere. But prepare to face the wrath of others for going too slow. You could be going the speed limit and people will honk at you and flash their lights at you to go faster. That is, until they can speed past you at 140km per hour (87 MPH) or so (in a 60km per hour (37 MPH) zone at that)!

4) Roads are a Real-Life Obstacle Course

Imagine you’re driving in a non-existent lane and suddenly you have to veer out of it because the other side of a divided road has a U-turn opportunity and they turn into their own dedicated lane separated by cones for a bit that just so happens to sit RIGHT on top of the “lane” you’re in. But there are no signs to warn you of this or large arrows on the road telling you to move over…

Or imagine a truck is trying to turn across the other side of a divided road. It’ll just keep pulling into the road and you can just drive around it. How about the guy who just came down your side of a divided road going the wrong way?

Cattle on the road, odd parking jobs, people partying in the street, multiple cars trying to enter a small area at once. And I did mention the goats, right? These are all realities of driving in Iraqi Kurdistan. None, however, comes close to the massive obstacle course I encountered in Rawanduz

5) Detours for Road Construction? Fughettaboutit!

So you’re driving along and take a turn onto the one road that goes where you want to go, except they’re doing resurfacing. Ok, fine. Except they were resurfacing both sides of a divided road at once… It’s not like there’s a detour or anything though. So you’re supposed to drive on the side that they’re not currently working on. Easy, right?

Except that side everyone is now driving on has already been stripped down to its bare surface, hardly fit for driving on. And the road is absolutely covered in large piles of rubble on both sides of you. So basically, you have enough room for one car to fit through at a time. But there’s nobody to direct you, so you weave around piles and take turns. There were no signs. No information. I didn’t even know if I was still heading the right way (I was)! And I’m fairly certain my rental car got a bit scuffed up in this otherwise 4WD experience (with my car that looked to be almost 15 years old).

Upper Hamilton Road

My rental car on the Upper Hamilton Road

So there you have it! Renting a car in Iraq? Bear in mind these simple road rules and you’ll be just fine! But do remember, there’s no such thing as car insurance, which makes driving under these conditions pretty terrifying!

Read More About My Adventure in Iraq

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14 Responses to How to Drive in Iraq

  1. Jennifer October 28, 2013 at 3:28 am #

    Your brave driving in Iraq! Looks like its ok on the country roads but not in the cities!

  2. Benjamin November 8, 2013 at 6:58 am #

    Well Aaron, it seems o be quite a challenging task!! Would definitely keep in mind all these tips while traveling to Iraq… thanks for sharing.

    • Aaron November 10, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

      Haha, just takes a bit of getting used to…

  3. Soran January 18, 2014 at 6:45 am #

    Hallo Aaron,

    As a Kurd I want to thank you very much for the beautiful words you publish about my people and my country. This helps us a lot, you show people the differences between Kurdistan and Iraq.

    PS. I never drive in Kurdistan, I guess you’re braver than I am haha

    • Aaron January 28, 2014 at 12:26 am #

      Hi Soran,

      My pleasure! I really enjoyed my time in Kurdistan and think that people should understand about the vast difference between the provinces that make up Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq.

      As for driving, well, I don’t think it’s an experience I’ll ever forget!

  4. Nico January 28, 2014 at 5:24 am #

    Looks like the same traffic rules apply in Indonesia as Iraq.

    • Aaron January 28, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

      I’d say most of the world has “interesting” driving habits (i.e., they drive maniacally).

  5. Vann February 21, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    I know what it is like driving in Kurdistan. I have been living in Sulimanya for 12 months and the same there. I am still confused by the way they drive. I just keep my head and head for my destination till I get there. I am from South Africa and still get cold shivers when i have to face them. I get my relief when i go home on holiday.

    Thanks for a great site,

    Vann Johnson

    • Aaron February 28, 2014 at 3:09 am #

      Hahaha! Yeah, I’d already been driving for a whole day, when my friend, who had been living near Erbil for a year, started yelling, “put your hazard lights on, you’re gonna get hit!” I was like, “what?” They certainly have some odd practices, but, hey, to each their own!

  6. IamIsmail September 8, 2014 at 8:16 am #

    Hi
    my name is Ismail ,I’m from United Arab Emirates and live in dubai.
    I just want to say that Im really inspried by ur brave driving in iraq, Its something unusual to c from foreign, anyway recently me and my brother are planing to drive from Kuwait to Turkey which is im kind of worried of politics issues… Do u know a safe route that can get to in peace to turkey
    ****please replay

    • Aaron September 8, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

      I don’t, sorry! Though looking at a map it looks like you could probably go through Iran. You would only have to pass through a small section at southern tip of Iraq which I think is currently safe, though check conditions before you go.

      How funny that you’re in Dubai! Just today I was taking another road trip…from Dubai to Khasab in Oman!

  7. Salim Hassan February 3, 2016 at 12:49 am #

    Hi Aaron,

    Thanks for sharing this blog on the internet. I would like to use your article to prepare a presentation on driving in Iraq as we had one of our employee who got involved in car accident in Basra. Therefore, I’m responsible to raise awareness on driving in Iraq.

    Could we say that the driving habits describe would be applicable to the southern region in Iraq?

    Your respond would be highly appreciated!

    Thanks,
    Salim

    • Aaron February 3, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

      Yes I would say that is likely, although I don’t know for certain. And yes, feel free to use my article. I would appreciate it if you could credit me though. Thanks!

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