JEDDAH // Saudi Arabia's clergy is joining the government in a new campaign to reduce the growing number of road accidents in the kingdom, which has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in the world. Last year, Saudi implemented a strict new system of fines in an attempt to limit the number of accidents and traffic violations, and the Shoura Council, the country's parliament, approved a new road safety plan. Yet in a country where one person dies almost every hour in road accidents, linking traffic safety to one's religious obligations may prove to be more effective in the ultraconservative society.
According to traffic department figures, 485,931 accidents took place on the kingdom's roads in 2008, killing 6,458 people and injuring 36,486. The number of accidents has been found to increase during the summer. Sheikh Salman al Oudah, a leading religious scholar, appears in most of the traffic department's awareness campaign advertisements of its newly installed automated traffic violation monitoring system (Saher).
In the ad, Mr al Oudah links speeding to suicide, which is considered an unforgivable sin in Islam. Mr al Oudah says, "crazy speeding is [suicidal and] will capture your soul and the souls of others [who speed]". Col Abdulrahman bin Abdullah Al Moqbil, the supervising head of the Saher campaign, said including a religious dimension to the campaign was important, and he hoped it would have a positive effect on all segments of society and help limit traffic violations.
The Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al Sudais, surprised listeners to his Friday sermon last month when he said traffic violations amounted to misconduct in Islam. "Many scholars and heralds lost their lives in car accidents because of speeding and not paying attention to traffic lights," he added. Mr al Sudais blamed the recklessness of young drivers on the media as he said that many of them imitate the deadly driving scenes that are projected in the foreign films and TV.
Col al Moqbil added that religion is only one dimension of the campaign, and the ads also aim to create greater awareness on how economically damaging road accidents are. According to Col Mohammed bin Hasan al Qahtani, the director of the traffic department in Jeddah, there are about nine million traffic violations recorded annually in Saudi Arabia, and that traffic accidents cause material losses worth about 13 billion Saudi riyals (Dh12.7bn) per year, mostly in healthcare costs.
However, other reports showed the economic losses were greater than the estimates of the traffic department. According to a recent study conducted by the oil company Saudi Aramco, the annual cost of treating accident victims in the kingdom is enough to build three oil refineries. Ali al Ghamdi, the former chairman of the national traffic safety committee and professor of traffic and transport engineering at King Saud University in Riyadh, was quoted by local media as estimating that the annual costs of road accidents are about 26bn riyals, which is equal to four per cent of the country's gross domestic product.
He added that about one third of government hospital beds are occupied by accident victims. "About 45 per cent of accidents are caused by speeding,"he told reporters last month. According to preliminary estimates by the ministry of health, the medical tests and care given to an accident victim is about 100,000 riyals to 120,000 riyals. "This is a huge waste of money," Dr Mohammed Bakhsh, the director of the emergency department at King Fahd Hospital, was quoted as saying by Arab News.
He added that the ministry of health was conducting a detailed study that is to be published by the end of the year on the costs of treating road accident victims at public hospitals across the country. In a previous statement, the general director of the traffic department Major Gen Fahd al Bishr said about 50,000 people died on the roads and more than 300,000 were injured over the past 10 years resulting in a loss of 100bn riyals over that period.
The Shoura Council last month endorsed a national executive plan for traffic safety and called for applying stricter fines and traffic regulations to reduce road accidents in the country, which has one of the world's highest road accident rates. Major Gen Muhammad Abusaq, a member of the Shoura Council, told local media that the council had been urged by the higher authorities to make proposals to cut down the number of road accidents.
The council also looked at other ways to reduce accidents such as introducing metro rail systems in major cities to limit the use of cars. Muhammad al Ghamdi, the secretary general of the Shoura, said the 150-member consultative body would present the plan that calls for the modernisation of traffic regulations and improving the organisational set-up of the traffic department to the Saudi King for his final approval.