Every year, legions of immigrants from all over the world must learn to navigate Washington’s crazy quilt of traffic circles, one-way streets, cul-de-sacs, Beltway merges and, most recently, bike lanes. Driving instructors in the Washington region jokingly call it “the other DWI”—Driving While Immigrant.
While there are plenty of inept drivers who are American-born, driving in the U.S. poses specific challenges for non-English speakers—not least of which is bearing the brunt of foreign-driver stereotypes. Adults relearning to drive in a country with stricter traffic laws than their own must first unlearn their old habits. Driving backward down a one-way street, for instance, is fairly common elsewhere in the world, says Jose Ucles, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a Washington-based government agency.
As one of the most international regions in the country, the Washington metro area is home to drivers from countries where there is little or no driver education, where the rule of law is weak, the roads are narrow and everyone knows you can pay a “fine” (a.k.a. a bribe) if you’re caught driving without a license or proper documentation.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, India, Kenya and Nigeria consistently have the world’s highest rates of traffic fatalities. About 90 percent of traffic injuries occur in developing countries, according to a 2009 report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), the most recent data available.
“I know firsthand how people drive in our countries and it’s, wow, just chaotic. In Spanish, we say on the roads it’s ‘The law of the strongest’, where the biggest car will cut everyone else off,” said Ucles, who’s originally from Honduras and has worked on dozens of television and Internet campaigns with local Spanish-language news stations.