In Tanzania, it is apparently illegal
to talk on the phone while driving.
I had been all day in the blistering sun of Dar es Salaam, attempting to gain possession of our new truck. This was not the first day I’d done so. But on this (did I say it was hot?) day I did procure the vehicle, and was slowly making my way north to the SIL guesthouse in 6:00 pm traffic. I was moving along at a speed of at least 2.5 miles per hour, and called Christie to share with her the good and the bad news:
- Good = I was coming with our truck… at long last.
- Bad = A few of the truck’s parts were stolen while our warranty was being issued at Toyota of Tanzania. And it would be AT LEAST an hour before traffic would allow me to reach the guesthouse.
That’s when the police officer waved me over to the side of the road. Thinking he was pulling me over for not yet having registration and insurance posted in my windshield, I began retrieving the papers from my bag. But he didn’t mention the registration; rather he asked why I was using my phone while driving. I explained that I would be late to pick up my wife and daughter, and was informing them of that fact. He kindly offered that I should have parked my truck on the shoulder of the road to make the phone call. I didn’t argue that the shoulder was already in use by all of the many cars using it in attempts to pass those of us waiting patiently in traffic.
I did, however, answer that I didn’t know it was illegal to use a phone while driving in Tanzania. He was shocked and asked where I was from — as if all decent countries have laws against mobile phone use while in an automobile. [I remember when mobile phones could ONLY be used while in your vehicle. And never mind that I wasn't technically "operating" the vehicle, but was rather inching forward at slower than walking pace....] I told him I was from the U.S., and he was shocked as if I should have then assumed it was illegal to talk and drive. He must have thought I was lying when I explained that, to my knowledge, it is indeed legal in the U.S. to converse while at the steering wheel (but not to text?).
I told him that, while I didn’t know at the time I was breaking a law, I would still be happy to pay the appropriate fine because I was indeed a transgressor. So he got in the car to make the trip with me to the police station (where you must go to have your ticket written — if you pay a “ticket” on the spot in Dar, you have not in fact paid a fine, but rather you’ve bribed an officer). He directed me to drive on the wrong side of the street, ignore stop signs, make illegal turns, run down elderly women crossing the road with their groceries, and break sundry other rules of the road, all en route to the police station.
On the way to the station — amidst his blatant disregard for all laws of traffic — Mr. Officer explained that I would be required to appear in court the next morning to pay a 250,000 shilling fine (almost $200 USD). That price tag seemed not only high, but impossible. [A typical traffic ticket here is 20,000 shillings.] I was being set up for a bribe.
In good corrupt police officer form, our man began to fret about how in the world he might be able to help me. After all, he wanted to spare me the extreme hassle and embarrassment of appearing in court and paying such a hefty fine. He thought this way and that, while declaring his respect for my time and announcing his concern for the welfare of my bank account. He paused awkwardly, waiting for me to respond with an offer as we sat parked just outside the police station.
Instead of offering a small token of my gratitude (10-20,000 shillings), I responded with: So I guess we need to go inside to write this ticket and make arrangements for my court hearing. I realize I’ve broken the law, and it’s best that I take responsibility for my actions and pay the appropriate fines. I am ready.
Officer: Well… I suppose I could forgive you just this one time, provided you not let me catch you talking on your cell phone while driving ever again.
Me: Wow. I’d really appreciate that, but I understand if I need to receive my ticket.
Officer: No, I want to forgive you. [Awkward pause.] But now there’s just the question of how I’ll return to my post… I suppose I could take one of those taxis? [Another awkward pause.]
Me: No problem. I can give you a ride back to your post. It’s the least I can do.
Officer: But I wouldn’t want you to be an inconvenience by asking you to sit through all that traffic again; you’ll be late to meet your family. There are lots of taxis right here. [Awkward pause.] I just need to figure out how to pay for one of them…. [Very long awkward pause -- as the officer was surely reflecting on how he might possibly afford a taxi.]
Me: Yeah, but taxis are so expensive. [Starting my truck.] I understand if you prefer to go with one of those guys, but I really don’t mind at all giving you a lift. [I start to pull away.]
Seemingly surprised at my unwillingness to donate to his cab fund, the policeman gets in the truck and I drop him off right where I picked him up, shorter on time but not on cash… or on integrity.
I still don’t know whether or not it’s illegal to speak on the phone while driving in Tanzania.