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

Article excerpt

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. …