Road traffic accidents are costing Arab states billions of dollars annually, not to mention the catastrophic loss of life. Now, from Morocco to the UAE, governments are grappling to reduce the region’s notoriously high rate of traffic fatalities

Arab traffic jam: road traffic accidents are costing Arab states billions of dollars annually, not to mention the catastrophic loss of life. Now, from Morocco to the UAE, governments are grappling to reduce the region’s notoriously high rate of traffic fatalities

Josh Martin

EVERY YEAR, STATISTICIANS IN THE Department of Neurosciences at the Armed Forces Hospital in Riyadh record a grim list of deaths. The list does not represent victims of terrorism, or soldiers fallen in battle. Rather, it is a total of the deaths which have occurred on Saudi Arabia’s notoriously dangerous highways.

Last year, over 5,000 Saudis died in traffic accidents. Most were motorists who ignored basic traffic safety rules, such as using a signal when turning, maintaining safe speed, or using lights at night. The country’s traffic accident fatality rate has soared, despite elaborate policing and major investment in street signals as well as post-accident medical facilities.

It is estimated that of all the deaths that occur in the kingdom’s Ministry of Health hospitals, 81% are due to road traffic accidents. Saudi Arabia’s experience is not unique: It reflects a mounting regional crisis. According to figures compiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Arab world has only 2% of the world’s motor vehicles, but records 6% of all traffic fatalities.

Conditions have become so bad that the Indian government recently issued warnings to its nationals about hazardous driving conditions in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

The rising social and economic cost of these traffic deaths (over $6bn annually in Saudi Arabia alone), has prompted Arab governments to explore a number of sometimes draconian solutions.

Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) have all tightened up the tests required to obtain a driver’s licence. And many countries have begun strictly enforcing obedience of traffic signs and signals.

In the late 1990s, as the Egyptian government completed a major overhaul of Cairo’s transport infrastructure (including removal of old tram lines, installation of new traffic signals, and reconfiguration of major intersections), a massive crackdown on violators was instituted. With newly-installed traffic signals, no-nonsense traffic police were stationed at major intersections like Midan Opera, Midan Tahrir, and along the Corniche. Hundreds of drivers who ignored red lights were fined, ticketed, and sometimes jailed.

Although the crackdown has not eliminated Cairo’s notorious traffic congestion, it has made motorists more obedient and has reduced the city’s traffic fatality rates.

Dubai has undertaken a similar investment in upgraded road signals and correspondent traffic policing. An interesting result in the emirate has been a boom in driving schools, which charge as much as Dh3,000 ($1,000) for a driving certificate.

Students flock to those schools knowing that traffic violations can be far more costly than the tuition fees. Dubai has been sharply increasing fines for traffic violations, to encourage safer driving. This year, drivers can face a one-off fine of Dh500 ($150) for driving on road shoulders. Second-time offenders can loose their licence and be compelled to take a driver education course again. Trucks operating without functioning signal lights will have their vehicle registration cards confiscated. Private buses can be confiscated if they make illegal stops.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Abdullah Al Gaithi, deputy director of the Dubai Police Traffic Department, truck drivers will also face stiff fines if they fail to use warning lights in the evening, and any trucks with bad tyres will be confiscated immediately.

Traffic safety has come into conflict with religious custom in some areas. Concerns over public safety have prompted governments to ban women drivers from wearing the veil, outraging conservative clergy. In Kuwait, for example, a 1984 law banned women drivers from wearing the veil. Although the law was subsequently relaxed, it was reactivated after 2001, both for security reasons as well as public safety concerns.

Many veiled women welcomed the reactivation decision believing security and safety are priorities. However, almost 200 women have been fined this year for driving while wearing the veil.

Virtually all countries in the region are exploring proposals designed to reduce the growth of private vehicular traffic, by investing in public transportation networks. Light rail and tram systems are being proposed or expanded in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt.

But the cost factors can be prohibitive–a light rail/ monorail system for Dubai City could run to $3bn (on top of $9bn invested in road improvements); trans-Saudi rail line $2bn; and an expanded light rail in Tunis $300m. Even with a massive investment in public transport, the traffic safety issue is unlikely to change significantly. When the government of Dubai proposed building a light rail system to relieve traffic congestion in the highly urbanised emirate, many expatriates and citizens alike expressed scepticism. “Public transport is good to some extent,” said one long-time expatriate resident. “But will motorists give up their air-conditioned cars and wait for a bus or train in the heat? I don’t think so.”

Throughout the Arab world, traffic experts agree, there has to be a bigger investment in driver education, as well as enforcement of traffic safety laws and regulations. Some countries have adopted imaginative solutions.

In Dubai, where most truck and bus drivers are South Asian, police have developed an innovative education campaign. Traffic safety messages have been recorded by 28 Bollywood stars, to be broadcast on nine radio stations in Hindi and Urdu. The messages explain new safety regulations and highlight the importance of good driving habits.

The celebrity campaign is designed not only to deliver the safety message, but to allow truckers enough time to bring their vehicles up to legal standards.

All these efforts may not be enough. In Saudi Arabia, despite education campaigns, fatality rates continue to climb. Dr. Saleh Al Athel, president of the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology, told a recent symposium that his institute had conducted 51 studies on various aspects of traffic accidents. They all identified careless driving and violation of traffic rules as the main causes of road accidents.

At that same symposium, Col. Abdul Rahman Al Muqbil, director of traffic control in Riyadh, said there were over 200,000 recorded cases of speeding last year alone. Drivers routinely ignore signals: Red lights have no meaning.

Seeking to reverse the fatality trends, Riyadh Governor Prince Salman has approved a safety strategy involving the installation of a large number of surveillance cameras and construction of speed breakers at key traffic intersections. But it remains to be seen if this investment will be sufficient to realise the governor’s stated goal, to reduce the number of traffic fatalities by 4% each year.

In a massive study on road safety unveiled last year by the World Health Organisation (WHO), it was estimated that road crashes kill over 1.2m people annually worldwide, and injure up to 50m more. Although fatality rates in advanced countries have been declining over the past decade, the exact opposite is true in developing nations. By the year 2020, road traffic injuries are expected to be the third leading contributor to global medical costs, ahead of such scourges as respiratory disease, Aids and war.

Several Arab governments face severe economic strains due to the rising public cost of traffic-related injuries and deaths. The WHO found that on average the cost of road traffic injuries amounted to 1.5% of GDP in lower income countries, and 2% of GDP for high income countries. But for Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and Kuwait, the cost may actually exceed 4% of GDP.

It is enough to make some Arab government ministers wonder if the invention of the internal combustion engine was such a good idea.

DEATH ON THE ROAD–SELECTED COUNTRIES

Traffic

Population Vehicles fatalities

Country (Million) (000s) (Per 100,000)

Algeria 32.1 2,730 12.8

Bahrain 0.7 205.3 10.9

Egypt 76.1 2,300.1 10.4

Jordan 5.6 361.0 12.8

Kuwait 2.3 754.0 28.8

Oman 2.9 492.1 23.6

Saudi Arabia 25.8 7,050.1 21.0

UK 60.2 27,920.0 8.4

Sources: UN Development Programme; World Health Organisation;

JAM Research.

% OF WORLDWIDE ROAD DEATHS

Population Vehicles % traffic

Region Global % Global % deaths

HMCs * 15 60 14

Asia/Pacific 54 16 44

Central/Eastern Europe 7 6 12

Latin America/Caribbean 8 14 13

Africa 11 4 11

Middle East/North Africa 4 2 6

* HMCs= Highly Motorised Countries (Canada, Japan, US, Western Europe)

Sources: EGRF Factbook 2005; World Health Organisation; JAM Research.

COPYRIGHT 2005 IC Publications Ltd.

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