x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Egyptians struggle with safety on roads

A month and a half after a new traffic law was enforced, there has been little visible improvement in the safety of Egypt's roads.

Minibuses transport about 2.7 million people each day in Cairo, according to officials.
Minibuses transport about 2.7 million people each day in Cairo, according to officials.

Cairo // A month and a half after a new traffic law was enforced, there has been little visible improvement in the safety of Egypt's roads, where major collisions claim thousands of lives every year. On Monday, 12 people including six foreign tourists were killed when their coach collided head-on with a lorry along the west coast of Egypt's Sinai peninsula. At least 37 people were also injured in the collision, not far from the popular Sinai resort of Sharm el Sheikh.

On Saturday, three Italian tourists were killed when the minibus they were travelling in overturned on Sinai's eastern coast, near the resort of Dahab. According to the transportation ministry, at least 8,000 people died and 30,000 were hurt in road collisions in Egypt in 2006, one of the highest rates in Africa, though it is widely believed the real figure is far higher. Egypt introduced a new traffic law on Aug 1 to improve road safety and ease the country's chronic road congestion.

Those found talking on a mobile phone or not wearing a seat belt face a fine of 300 Egyptian pounds (Dh200), while driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street can result in a fine of up to 3,000 pounds. "The law will bring order to our streets and safeguard lives and property," Sherif Gomaa, the deputy interior minister, told reporters before the law was introduced, adding that it would be "firmly and mercilessly enforced".

Mohammed Mansour, the transportation minister, said the new law would greatly reduce car collisions and that it was "badly needed". However, critics said those caught will simply bribe traffic police. What is needed, they said, is the enforcement of existing laws and awareness of - and a culture of respect for - traffic safety. "The new traffic law never meant better traffic, but higher bribes for policemen and tips for parking boys," said Moustafa el Sayed, a Cairo resident and driver.

More than four million cars roam the streets of Cairo, including about 80,000 taxis, many of which are up to 40 years old. It is common to find taxis without seat belts or door handles and with bald tyres. The new law stipulates that drivers of vehicles more than 20 years old now have three years to get them off the road and replace them with new ones. Minibuses - which officials said transport about 2.7 million people each day - can be seen careering around the streets of Cairo with little respect for other cars and pedestrians and are the cause of a high number of collisions.

Their low-paid drivers - immortalised in the hit 1996 movie Demons of Asphalt - are known to take drugs to stay awake on long shifts. "Taking the minibus is a daily adventure," said Amal Hamed, 25, who works in a clothes shop, as she waited for a minibus to take her home to the teeming neighbourhood of Shoubra. "When I arrive home safely, I pray to thank God I'm still alive. But others are less sanguine about the situation.

"My three children were subject to a horrendous car accident by a minibus that was driving in the wrong direction, not very far from a traffic checkpoint," wrote Khairy Ramadan, an Egyptian columnist, in the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm this month. "My car was destroyed and one of my sons was bleeding and his face was badly bruised, while the minibus driver fled the scene of the accident." The driver was later arrested but was released shortly afterwards without a fine, Mr Ramadan wrote.

Inadequate infrastructure in Egypt's big cities is also blamed for the number of collisions. Traffic lights often do not work and roads are cracked and ageing. "I keep telling myself, smile you are in Egypt, and if there is no heavy traffic that would mean that there is something wrong, or that it's a holiday and I shouldn't have been on my way to work," one caller named Rehab said on a popular morning radio show, which advises listeners on the traffic situation.

There are no official statistics to say whether the new law has helped reduce road collisions. But according to Mr Ramadan, it is not off to a good start. "I'm not only angry for my children, but for the new law," he wrote, referring to the minibus that crashed into his car. "If this driver wasn't imprisoned while driving in the opposite direction, without a licence, and after posing danger to children's lives, when will he be imprisoned?

"How can we trust the law while we see that the criminal was set free to continue his crimes by his rash driving?" nmagd@thenational.ae