A national epidemic

It was said with typically un-Lebanese understatement. “The people are not satisfied,” conceded Interior Minister Ziad Baroud when announcing the latest bid to curb the mayhem on Lebanon’s roads. And why should they be? They see a political class absorbed by parochial brinkmanship while everyday they take their lives in their hands every time they climb into their car.

Drink-driving; speeding; driving without due care and attention; driving without seatbelts; driving with children on the laps of front seat passengers; driving with too many occupants; driving cars that are not roadworthy…we could go on and on.

Baroud also announced the introduction of speed radars, even though he admitted he still does not know where the majority of the money needed to pay for the equipment will come from. Meanwhile, over the last weekend, the Internal Security Forces (ISF) announced that it had issued 2,243 traffic tickets and confiscated 345 motorbikes and 134 cars in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. This is all very encouraging but it begs the question why wasn’t the ISF always so draconian. The problem has, after all, been around for decades.

This most recent initiative was more than likely activated by the rising public anger over the recent spate of needless road deaths that have left families ripped apart and which could have been avoided had a proper system of checks and balances been in place. It is also more than likely that the final straw was the death of 17-year-old Talal Kassem, who was hit by a car on his way to school on October 19. Kassem was a student at Beirut’s prestigious International College (IC) and the grandson of the banker Adel Kasser, whose brother, Adnan, is a minister of state.

It is typical, not just of Lebanese, but of all societies, that it often takes a high-profile event to initiate change. Talal Kassem’s life was no less valuable than the child who is killed by a careless tractor driver in the Bekaa, but if his death can galvanize the state into a sustained campaign to eradicate unnecessary traffic deaths, then so be it.

However, for a genuine culture of road awareness to take hold, the state must do much more than place policemen at strategic intersections with ticket books at the ready. This cannot be a measure designed to temporarily sate public frustration. We have seen it all before with the token crackdowns on drivers not wearing seatbelts and using cell phone while driving. But a law that is not enforced is worse than no law at all and it is to the root of the problem. The fact that there is no fundamental understanding of what it means to have and respect a basic highway code necessitates the quest for a permanent solution to continue.

Unless there is a concerted effort by all government agencies in cooperation with the private sector, the will to tackle this huge national malaise will once again wane.

Arguably, the most important factor is that the political class and rest of the so-called elite must stop thinking that they are above the law. Drivers and security guards must respect the state and not feel that while their ‘boss’ is on the road that the road belongs to them. Politicians, MPs in particular – for they are the lawmakers – must set an example of motoring probity. Indeed, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we saw politicians take the bus to encourage constituents to follow suit?

In fact, why not channel all motoring fines into improving Lebanon’s woeful public transport system? At the very least, they could be used to fund an awareness campaign, not just to promote safe driving, but also to convince people that there is no shame in taking the bus to work. Indeed, the benefits of using public transport extend to more than just clearing the roads of cars and reducing accidents. It can create a sense of community, even a sense of a national identity.

Baroud is becoming something of an iconic figure, a man who has captured the imagination as a public servant who stands out from the mediocrity that has come to define Lebanon’s political class. He has championed many real issues that the majority of Lebanese see as genuinely having an impact on their daily lives. But if he is to be remembered for anything, why not go down in history as the man who found a cure to what is fast becoming a national epidemic?

  • arab metalhead

    I do agree that it is first and foremost a question of mentality. But severe laws, heavy fines and the means to apply them will help change this mentality.

    November 6, 2010

  • moni

    How come no one speaks about the fact Lebanese people get their driving licence bil wasta?One of the main problems is that we have to admitt we don't know how to drive.We don't know the traffic rules.Maybe this is where Mr Baroud should start.Modernizing the traffic rules,creating serious driving schools.Driving well is not only about driving slowly and wearing the seat belt.I really hope Mr Baroud be remembered for solving this cronic problem in Lebanon,but I really doubt it.It's a question of mentality.In Lebanon following the rules,abiding by the law is considered stupid.We don't have this culture of respect to what is public.If we can change that,many things would change in Lebanon.Sigh!

    November 5, 2010

  • Sirine G.

    What about the police respecting the law for starters? When I see a policeman on his motorbike driving down the wrong way in a one way street or another one speeding (without the siren light) down the Ring in his fancy Dodge and cutting off motorists, I wonder what chance is there of ignorant drivers complying. I agree that there should be a more thorough awareness campaign applied, but this should be done on a consistent and continuous basis and more importantly in conjunction with other practical measures. Such as: all drivers being given a fixed period, say 2 years, to renew their licenses and pass a new comprehensive driving test (the Lebanese all went through having to change their mobile SIM cards a few years back so there is a precedent there); the introduction of a points system for infractions where licences can be revoked beyond a fixed amount, and clamping down on the car rental industry where more hefty deposits should be required of summer (young/reckless) drivers.

    November 5, 2010

  • Wajdi

    This is a great way to get people emotionally thoughtful to say the least about the seatbelt issue. On each trip to Lebanon, I have a difficult time to get my passengers (mostly family) to wear it. What I do is to refuse to start the engine if they are not all buckled up (front and rear seats). It is really annoying to hear the same lame and ignorant frase "Yiiii ma b7ibu, bidayi2ni". How silly is that? Watch this excellent ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-8PBx7isoM

    November 4, 2010

  • Albino

    Lebanese roads are some of the most dangerous in the World. The State is completely absent of any policy of security on the road. Lack of education and civism is a main factor ; Truck drivers are placed on the wheel of heavy tructs without any driving training...we see them circulation with heavy loads at hight speeds, well over 1oo Km/H because they do not have an idea about the related danger for them and the other utents. Motociclists do not ware helmets...in many third world countris this is alresdy compulsor... lack of edutaion and respect for the others is evident speacially by thos rogue drivers with potent machines paid by Iran though theit agents in Lebanon... all of us risk our lives daily... when driving in Lebanon...police unidentified cars ar one of the otpionos ( with police properly trained for the effect)...

    November 4, 2010