On the Road in Lebanon, Safety is Secondary

Raising awareness can spread a new culture of road safety, but what is really needed is law enforcement. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Rebecca Whiting

Published Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sitting on the crowded bus watching the driver avidly type away on his smartphone, possibly glancing at the road once every ten seconds, the passengers are more free than he is to observe the billboard beseeching “Don’t text and drive.”

The campaign, launched by mobile phone operator Touch and the local road safety organization Youth Association for Social Awareness (YASA), is one of countless civic initiatives trying to address the inordinately high level of traffic-related deaths and casualties in Lebanon.

Though road casualties are relatively high throughout the Arab world, Lebanon is one of the few countries where the numbers are increasing. YASA president Mona Akl explained that this is due to the fact that other countries in the Arab world have worked towards improving road safety over the past five years, while Lebanon has not.

Badly designed and barely maintained roads continuously overseen by a near-complete lack of traffic law enforcement have made the roads the scene of one of the leading causes of death in the country.

Though the figures for 2012 have not yet been fully compiled, those up to end-November already show an increase from previous years. According to Internal Security Forces (ISF) figures, there were 2,215 crashes, 3,084 injuries, and 237 deaths during the first six months of 2012 alone.

Yet police records on road deaths only count fatalities that take place at the scene, according to YASA’s website. There are no follow-ups with the hospitals, so deaths due to injuries that occur afterwards are not recorded, which can count for up to 25 percent of fatalities in traffic.

The only visible attempts to address the issue, not including an odd policeman idly eating a sandwich by the side of the road, are the billboards, bus panels, commercials, and social media campaigns by non-governmental organizations such as Kunhadi and YASA.

Kunhadi was founded when 18-year-old student Hadi Gebrane died in a car crash in 2006. Lena Gebrane, his mother and vice-president of Kunhadi, said that their organization focuses on targeting youths aged between 15 and 29. “We target all sections of society, regardless of their social background,” she said.

“Raising awareness can spread a new culture of road safety, but what is really needed is law enforcement,” said Gebrane. She said that there was a time when a seat belt law was enforced, but then efforts ceased. “Perhaps the government felt there were more pressing issues to be addressed,” she said. “Crime takes less than half of the young lives lost in car crashes. The government should know where to concentrate.”

Of their efforts, Gebrane felt that the most successful was an event called “taxi night,” an initiative that sends taxis to pick up attendees to a nightclub and drops them home so as to discourage drunk-driving. “Until the government enforces the law, we will keep coming up with solutions,” she said.

Charities are not the only non-governmental bodies focusing on road safety. One entrepreneur, Wissam Abdel Baki, designed the website “PerkMyCity” in November 2012 to encourage Lebanese to report road safety issues. He hoped to put pressure on authorities. As yet, 18 issues have been logged and the authorities have addressed none of them.

Sadly, the statistics on crashes would appear to show that the labors of such groups have had little impact. According to Akl, YASA’s studies have shown that for changes to be made and improvements to be seen, the government has to be the main driving force in a nationwide campaign to strictly enforce traffic laws.

Despite the prominence of road-related casualties and deaths, it is far from priority for the authorities. Former Minister of the Interior, Ziad Baroud, said that during his time in office from 2008 to 2011 there was a period during which he campaigned heavily to see traffic laws enforced, a move that instantly saw drastic improvements in the number of casualties. He explained that then, with the political unrest around that time and the Cabinet resigning, the roads one more ceased to be a focus point.

While the number of casualties continues to increase, a new traffic law was ratified by the government on 24 October 2012. The law stipulates harsher fines and more control over the training of drivers and the process behind issuing licenses.

The main parameters of the traffic law, which had not been amended since 1967, include progressive fines for speeding. Until now, there has been a set fine of LL50,000 ($33.27) for any speeding violations. The law now states that fines will be proportionate to the offense, which makes for a possible LL3 million fine and a two-year prison sentence for exceeding 60 km over the speed limit.

Lt. Col. Joseph Mousallem, head of the Public Relations Division of the ISF, explained that at this moment the effects of the new law can’t be seen. Security forces are still developing an instruction program to train officers in the new system. “It will be four, five, six months, no – probably a year – before the new law is fully implemented,” he predicted.

Driving instructors will now be required to have certain qualifications, which until this point was not the case. Moussalem explained that the state is currently devising a program for their training. The new law will also bring a point system on drivers licenses into effect, whereby points are deducted in relation to violations. Licensed drivers will begin with 12 points, and when all points are lost, the license will be suspended for up to six months, during which time the driver will have to attend specialized classes.

All of this, however, will be entirely useless unless it is enforced, a change that will require a massive upheaval of official and public attitudes to road safety.

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