x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Road safety message must be driven home

Lebanon is a country that styles itself as a glamorous playground for monied Arabs but it is also a country where the state has a proud tradition of not giving a jot for the safety or security of its people. Road deaths are becoming a national plague.

Last Tuesday Talal Kassem, 17, a student at Beirut's prestigious International College high school, was struck by a car and killed on his way to class.

Depending on who you talk to, Talal's mother saw her son die as she stood on the balcony of the family home overlooking the Beirut's famous seafront corniche.

In the West, it would be easy to mark it down as a heart-wrenching tragedy but in Lebanon it is yet another demonstration of the state's inability to create a culture of road safety awareness.

Lebanon is a country that styles itself as a glamorous playground for monied Arabs but it is also a country where the state has a proud tradition of not giving a jot for the safety or security of its people. Road deaths are becoming a national plague.

But some of them remind people who live cocooned existences with drivers, maids and large dollops of influence that something very wrong has happened; that somehow the planets have shifted from their normal alignment.

Talal Kassem's background was top drawer and it was this that put the story on the front pages. His grandfather Adel Kassar is the vice president of Fransabank, while his great uncle, Adnan Kassar, is the president of the same bank, the president of the Lebanese chamber of commerce, a former economy minister and currently a minister of state in prime minister Saad Hariri's government.

Talal's death is therefore likely to once again raise the issue of the mounting casualty toll on Lebanon's roads, a national malaise that was cited in a 2000 UN report as one of the factors that would put a strain on the Lebanese health system in the coming century unless action was taken to stop the rot.

The other two were lung cancer and HIV/Aids, but if the report were updated today the authors would probably find that road-related deaths are now in a league of their own.

In the same week that Talal Kassem died, five other pedestrians from humbler backgrounds were also run over and killed. Normally, they wouldn't have merited a news-in-brief but after Talal's death they fuelled outrage in the nation's editorials.

The Internal Security Forces were also moved to defend their position by publishing figures that showed traffic fatalities this year were so far lower than previous years.

Even if it's true, the number - 400 dead for the year to date - is still too high and the potential cost to Lebanon's brand equity and especially its continuing bid to woo non-Arab tourists, could be considerable.

To paraphrase one very influential British food and wine critic I met over the summer: "It's a lovely country but the roads are atrocious.Everyone drives too fast and appears to think nothing of drinking and driving." It's an assessment that is hard to argue with.

In the summer, two sisters were killed when a speeding car ploughed into their tiny Peugeot in the suburb of Jdeideh. A week later, two 16-year-old boys were crushed to death in a horrific crash in Ras al Metn after celebrating passing the brevet state exams, and last month a truck ploughed into an army checkpoint on the notoriously lethal southern highway killing six people, including one of the soldiers.

The accident happened on the same stretch of motorway that tourists use to get to the many popular beach resorts.

Still the state does nothing, either to curb the carnage by punishing dangerous driving, or by clearing road obstacles, usually the debris of previous accidents, that lead to further accidents.

The Lebanese interior minister Ziad Baroud, a former lawyer and civil society activist, has made a token effort to curb traffic violations. He once famously manned a police checkpoint over New Year.

His populist approach, however, has never been effectively translated into real action. You might argue that if Mr Baroud wants to make a name for himself, all he has to do is tell his police officers to arrest traffic law violators - but it's not that simple.

By and large, young men don't become policemen in Lebanon to uphold the law or serve the community. Being a cop is a job for life with a pension that brings with it a certain status. One only has to stand at Beirut's busy Tabaris intersection and watch the police lounging on their Land Cruisers as car after car jumps the red lights. Why cause trouble?

I tried to find out how much all this bloodshed and mayhem costs the state each year by calling a friend who is a senior executive at a leading Beirut insurance house.

"There are no national figures, which is a pity because we would really like a clear picture of what's going on," he said. "Of course, we have our own numbers but they can only tell half the story."

YASA and Kun Hadi, two of the most high-profile Lebanese non-governmental organisations that promote road safety awareness, and both founded after traffic accident, are working tirelessly but they are swimming against a powerful tide of ignorance and apathy.

As usual it is left to the private sector to do the job of the state.

 

Michael Karam is a publishing and communication consultant based in Beirut.