Egypt's roads: for whom the bell tolls
Crashes on Egypt's roads rarely take a break. last week, eight US citizens met their fate in a bus crash that also injured 21 other people.
In a country where around 30,000 road accidents happen annually, according to the Cabinet's Information and Decisionmaking Support Centre (IDSC), it is vital to put an end to the bloodshed, which is 'seriously' weakening the country's socioeconomic fabric.
Roughly 100,900 lives were claimed in road mishaps in Egypt between 1990 and October 2008, according to the IDSC, while Egypt lost around 100,000 soldiers in its wars against Israel from 1948 until 1973, according to unofficial reports.
For whom the bell tolls
The number of road accidents in Egypt has swollen to alarming proportions over the past five years, while more than 3,000 people die on the world's roads every day, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In Egypt, home to 80 million people, road crashes result in roughly 7,000 deaths and more than 32,000 injuries annually, according to a study by theCabinet's Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC).
In November, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "On the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, we mourn the estimated 1.3 million people who lose their lives onthe world's streets and highways each year, and we renew our
resolve to prevent further deaths.
"Recognition is growing about the critical development and public health challenge posed by road traffic deaths and injuries.
This greater awareness has prompted governments and their partners to step up their response," he added.
From an economic perspective, fatal accidents affect the labour market, insurance sector and tourism, analysts say. Road safety reflects the economic progress of a country, according to one analyst.
"Road safety is an important factor in developing the transport sector, which plays a key role in economic growth. Transport, by its very nature, serves other sectors in an economy," Hani Riyad, an analyst at the Cairobased Financial and Legal Consultants Centre, told the Egyptian Mail in an interview.
In 2009, road accidents totalled 100,000, costing the national economy LE16 billion (nearly $3 billion). Human error was responsible for 68 per cent of these crashes, according to the IDSC. "In developed countries, safe roads mean fewer accidents. But in developing countries, roads are becoming more and more dangerous. In Egypt, it's the behaviour of the drivers that mainly causes accidents.
"Accidents may result in death or disabling injuries, which lead to a loss in the labour market. Higher rates of accidents may put insurance companies in a tight corner due to decreasing premiums, which wouldn't be enough to cover insurance policies," Riyad explained. Egyptian insurance companies pay around LE600 million in compensation annually due to car crashes, while premiums total LE300 million annually, according to the Insurance Holding Company.
Road accidents have reached an average of 30,000 per annum, according to the IDSC. "The insurance gap is widening," Riyad said.
"The impact of accidents directly affects labour and the insurance sector. Higher rates of accidents may affect tourism, as world tourist agents will think twice before making any reservations," he elaborated.
The number of road accidents in Egypt from January 1990 until October 2008 stood at 426,400, killing and injuring 100,900 and 440,000 people respectively, according to the IDSC. The world's death per 1,000km average ranges between four and 20 victims.
But in the most populous Arab country, it stands at 222 deaths per 1,000km,
according to the IDSC.
There were 5 million vehicles roaming the streets of this North African country by the end of 2008, up from 932,000 in 1981, according to the State-run Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS).
Last month, eight tourists were killed and 22 injured in a bus crash on a road on the country's Gulf of Suez coast. The crash, caused by reckless driving and negligence, has shed light on the relation between tourism and road safety, particularly in a countrythat relies heavily on tourist arrivals to boost the country's hard currency and national income.
Egypt is among the top 25 tourist destinations worldwide, accounting for 1 per cent of the global market, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation
Tourism accounts for 11 per cent of Egypt's gross domestic product (GDP), and employs around 13 per cent of the country's workforce, according to official reports.
"Generally speaking, tourist arrivals are on the rise, after recovering from the global
recession. I don't think road accidents are having an impact on tourism in Egypt at present. But higher rates may affect it in the future," Essam Helmy, a tourist expert, told this newspaper. The global downturn, which hit the world in 2008, has cast its shadow on global tourism over the past two years. In 2009, roughly 12.5 million tourists visited Egypt, down from 12.8 million a year earlier, according to the Ministry of Tourism. Tourists visiting Egypt stand at around 25 per cent of all tourism coming into the Middle East, and 33 per cent of visitors to North Africa, according to the UNWTO.
"Road accidents happen worldwide. In Egypt, they are on the increase, mainly due to reckless driving or drugs. This is a behavioural problem that should be put to an end by lawenforcement bodies," Helmy said, adding that the impact on tourism has been "neutral" so far, as bookings for Christmas and the New Year are the highest in two years.
"Tourism in Egypt is expected to hit a record high this year.Numbers are preliminary. I think we might get more than 13 million tourists this year," Helmy forecast.
Despite road tragedies over the past decades, tourism has been booming,
benefiting from the renovation of hotels, resorts and other facilities nationwide. Around 85.9 million tourists visited this country between January 1995 and August 2008, according to the IDSC.
No end to road mishaps?
Egypt's population is on the rise, which means many other things are on the rise too, including the number of cars, making driving on the roads of this country even more hazardous.
Many streets in Egypt are poorly designed, adding to the problem. At the same time, one wonders who is really responsible. Some people blame the Government for all the deadly accidents; others blame the drivers; others still blameboth.
"This is the responsibility of the Government, because the roads are not well paved, leading to more accidents," Mohamed Ismail, a 28- year-old employee, told the Egyptian Mail in an interview.
"The many bumps and holes in the streets are very dangerous. It is the duty of the Government to continuously maintain the safety of roads for the benefit of the public," he stressed.
This is a problematic issue that could take the Government many years to solve. The public need to help the Government do so. Abdullah Ibrahim believes that the Government and ordinary people are both responsible.
"Nobody can blame one party only. But I do think the Government is more to blame," Ibrahim, a 23-year-old accountant, told this newspaper.
"Many streets have on lighting at all. This is due to carelessness and it's very dangerous. Another problem is people who can't even drive getting driver's licences from the Traffic Authority."
He also blames microbus drivers whose behaviour is very annoying. They always violate all laws and drive wherever they want in the street, as if they owned the place. Many fatal accidents are caused by reckless microbus drivers, who seem to be constantly in a race against time.
According to a report by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), there were 22,938 accidents in 2009, up by 8.9 per cent on 2008. The report adds that 18 people die every day on the nation's roads, blaming 68 per cent of accidents on human error, 12 per cent on blown tyres and 2 per cent on car defects.
A report from the Shura Council also predicts a catastrophe for Egypt, which loses at least LE16 million per annum in accidents, in which about 18,000 cars are written off. Young men who drive very fast to show off and imitate the stars in action movies are another problem.
"Immature boys and even girls rarely adhere to the traffic laws, which aren't applied in many cases anyway," Ibrahim said. Statistics show that many more people die on Egypt's roads than have been killed in its wars.
"A large percentage of motorists don't know how to drive properly orhow to deal with an emergency. What makes matters worse is that a lot of microbus drivers take drugs while driving, increasing the chance of an accident," Ashraf Mohamed, a 52-
year-old bus driver, told this newspaper.
As for Diana Kyan, a 34-year-old data analyst from Belgium, who has been living in Egypt for three years now, she never dares drive here, although she has a driver's licence.
"I always take a cab or walk. Things aren't organised, drivers don't actually respect the so-called ethics of driving and the roads are full of potholes, while there are dangerous U-turns all over the capital," she told the samenewspaper.
"Meanwhile, buses stop anywhere to pick up a passenger or to let another one off. This is bad for my nerves. Besides, pedestrians cross the streets without even looking both ways," Diana commented.