Traffic in Tehran is kind of like Dodgeball, except far more fatal. Pedestrians (players) must be as swift and cunning as a fox, strategizing their next move, twisting and turning their bodies as they cross the street, in a bid to stay in the game (i.e., among the living). How does one stay in the game? By dodging the herd of ruthless, speed-hungry cars (balls). Forget about the neatly painted crosswalks, the stick figure man that lets you know it's safe to stroll, the policemen stationed around the streets who try to bring order to the traffic anarchy...No, when it's game time (i.e., 24-hours a day, 7 days a week), it's just you, the speed demon, and fate.
Pedestrians here do not have the right of way. So, you either dodge, or become roadkill. And since ambulances also don't have the right of way, you'll likely die while waiting for one to rescue you. Moral of the story: Dodge or Die.
I almost died four times here so far. Usually, I'm a dodger. But sometimes, your mere presence triggers the speed demon to accelerate, no matter how far away he/she is, forcing you to leap out of the way. Or, the driver will actually target you, zeroing in on the bull's eye, aiming to knock you clear into the next world. I guess I have to adapt. It's simply not enough to be hyper alert--you've got to get into the mind of the driver, and know his/her intentions. This is imperative to survival. And like me, you'll probably have a handful of split-second moments where you happen to be looking at a traffic light, instead of the erratic vehicles charging towards you, and in a flash find yourself frozen and stunned, like a deer in headlights, trying to scream away your impending doom.
Moral of the story: Dodge or Die.
The problem lies in enforcement. There isn't a very strong punishment system, unless an incident takes place. If you get hit, you get paid through the courts (women get 1/2 the amount of men, since men are the primary breadwinners and have a higher value, in terms of family survival); if cars hit each other, insurance takes care of it (drivers must be insured--this rule goes back decades, way before the U.S. made it the law); and if you break any traffic laws, you get a ticket.
But the ticket is pointless. Even though you get ticketed for speeding, illegal parking, ignoring traffic lights, refusing to fasten your seatbelt, holding a phone/cigarette/etc. while driving, the amount of the penalty is low enough for people to pay and continue on their merry way. People may pay anywhere from $1 to $25 in fines, which is a low sum, even in Iran.
I think the only way enforcement is to make an impact is if it scares people. Fear creates discipline, on an individual level. How many Iranians would drive straight towards pedestrians without batting an eye, if they were forced to yield? What if people here feared lawsuits, increase in insurance rates, exorbitant fines, revocation of driver's licenses, etc.? After all, isn't it these uncomfortable thoughts that keep us Americans in line?
More on the insanity of the streets, later.