As the spotlight falls on Saudi's roads, its safety record comes into sharp focus
A minute after you start reading this story, there will be a road accident in Saudi Arabia. Give it an hour and someone will have died.
That is the grim reality of driving in the Kingdom. When women get behind the wheel next year they will be entering one of the world’s most dangerous driving environments.
According to a Red Crescent report, there were 526,000 road accidents in Saudi Arabia last year and an average of 17 deaths a day.
Those figures give Saudi the second worst driving record in the Middle East, behind Libya, whose own drivers top not just the regional but the world rankings, with over 70 deaths per 100,000 of its population.
The number of people killed on Saudi roads, though, is double that of Libya, a reflection of the Kingdom's larger population. With around 9,000 lives lost in an average year, the US-based Centres for Disease Control has calculated that road injuries are the leading cause of death in Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi driver is more likely to die in crash than from diabetes and heart disease and four times more at risk when driving than from cancer, says the CDC, which has worked with health authorities in the Kingdom for 20 years.
By contrast, the countries with the best road safety record in the world, Sweden and the United Kingdom, have less than two deaths per 100,000 of population. For the UAE it is just under 11, comparable with the United States.
There are many ways in which this daily human tragedy can be measured. According to a 2015 report in the Saudi Medical Journal: “The young and economically productive age groups are the most affected.”
The journal estimated that in other industrialised countries, traffic accidents cost around one or two per cent of national income. For the KSA, it noted: “This loss has been estimated to be between 2.2 and 9 per cent.”
Ahmad Al Shaikha, the head of the Friends of the Red Crescent Committee, warned last year that the cost of road accidents was now approaching 21 billion Saudi Riyal, or Dh20.5 bn.
“We need to raise awareness about road accidents and be more socially responsible. It is truly a social issue. The government loses a lot of money as a result of these accidents,” he told the Saudi Gazette.
Earlier this month, a Saudi lawyer, Nawaf Al-Nabati, revealed that traffic related court cases had become a major burden on the country’s legal system, with nearly 16,000 lodged in the last two months alone. Many were from plaintiffs seeking compensation, or again insurance companies that had not paid out, he told the Arabic newspaper Al Watan.
Poor road conditions are blamed for the high level of accidents in some regions. One of the worst is said to be the highway to the popular beaches of Uqar on the Arabian Gulf.
“Seeing a traffic accident on the road has become a daily scene,” the Saudi Gazette reported earlier this month. The two lane road has no lighting and no central reservation, the newspaper found, adding: “There are no fences on either side of the road and stray camels can appear from nowhere in the middle of the road at any time.”
Saudi officials are well aware of the need to improve driving standards, even before the potential addition of several million women drivers. Two years ago, the authorities set a target of a reduction of 15 per cent in accidents without apparently specifying a date.
One worrying factor has been a number of motorists who deliberately drive recklessly on public roads. Police have been increasingly active in cracking down on young men who practice drifting on highways, often for enthusiastic audiences, and then posting their exploits on social media.
Perhaps the most notorious, styling himself 'King Al Nadheem', was given six years and 600 lashes in 2015 for endangering lives while drifting.
The court heard that he had caused the death of a passenger, with the then Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef stating publicly that he had no prospect of parole.
As one website reporting the conviction noted at the time: “This is more likely the reason why women in Saudi Arabia don’t drive.”