“No home has been spared a loss on Al-Sahrawi (the desert highway)”, said Amjad Al-Jaradin, as he recalled the accident this summer that claimed the lives of his brother, his brother's wife, his twenty-some niece, his uncle and his uncle’s wife in a collision with a truck on a diversion route in the Sultani area: a part of the desert highway under the jurisdiction of the Karak Governorate in the south of Jordan.
Al-Jaradin said that the investigation results indicated that the driver of the small vehicle was traveling above the speed limit of 60 kilometers per hour on the detour route, as he attempted to overtake the large truck. The investigation report deemed the driver of the truck responsible, in part, for the accident, due to his speeding up when the small vehicle tried to overtake him. The driver of the small vehicle ended up colliding, head on, with another truck that came from the opposite direction.
Traffic accidents involving freight vehicles frequently occur on the desert highway, which serves heavy trucking and freight traffic even while undergoing its long-term maintenance work already spanning several years.
This investigation, supported by official data, examines the role of freight vehicles in the occurrence of accidents –– particularly fatal ones –– on the desert highway between 2017 and 2020, when the road rehabilitation project was under implementation.
Al-Sahrawi is a Black Dot in Traffic Safety Records
The desert highway has witnessed an increase in the number of accidents in recent years. Since 2015, 281 people have died on the highway, and 2,878 have been injured.
In 2019, 90 deaths were recorded from traffic accidents on the desert highway. This makes it the deadliest year on record, followed by 70 deaths in 2017. Also in 2019, 796 injuries were recorded as compared to 426 injuries in 2015. This data is provided by the Traffic Institute and Traffic Department.
Freight Vehicles Pose Real Dangers
Public Security Department statistics have revealed that, in the past two years, freight vehicles accounted for about a quarter of the vehicles involved in accidents that resulted in human injuries, as compared to 14% in 2016. This included tow trucks, freight trucks, lowboys, trailers and other cargo vehicles.
Tow trucks –– not freight carriers in themselves –– stand out as the most dangerous among cargo transport vehicles. Although they make up less than 2% of all registered vehicles in the country, tow trucks constitute more than half of the freight vehicles involved in accidents, and about 15% of the overall number of vehicles involved in accidents.
In contrast, 70% of small passenger cars were involved in accidents that entailed injuries, a percentage equivalent to their share of registered vehicles.
When comparing vehicles within their classifications, one small car per one hundred is involved in traffic accidents, compared to 12 tow trucks per hundred in that class.
This investigation focuses on fatal accidents on the desert highway, finding that freight vehicles were present in about 40-60 percent of fatal accidents between 2017-2020, according to the sample.
According to the analysis of the sample, in 2019, five deaths out of ten on the desert highway were caused by accidents that involved freight vehicles, compared to seven out of ten deaths in 2018.
The head of the Jordanian Truck Owners Syndicate, Muhammad Daoud, explained that large numbers of trucks travel daily to Aqaba to transport crude oil, other oil derivatives, gas, legumes, general goods and other cargo. He estimated the number of trucks that travel the desert highway daily to be between 2000 and 2500.
Daoud attributed the causes of accidents on the desert highway in recent years to the bad condition of the road, which caused damage to trucks and incurred recurring maintenance costs for tires and body due to potholes and bumps that previously appeared on the road.
Data from the Traffic Institute in 2015 revealed that the last part of the desert highway, specifically the stretch between Ma'an and Al-Marigha, witnessed fewer accidents, human injuries and loss of life. The results were similar in the following years, 2016-2018, although this section of the desert highway recorded the highest percentage of heavy truck traffic out of all road-going vehicles.
Old Trucks and an Unorganized Sector
The freight industry in Jordan depends largely on trucking, especially in light of the absence of alternative internal means of freight transport, according to the long-term transport sector strategy.
A 2016 World Bank report described the foundational structure of the Jordanian transport sector as very fragmented, especially since it is divided between two ministries, three official bodies and two important local authorities (being the Greater Amman Municipality and the Aqaba Special Economic Authority). This division leads to double responsibilities and lack of coordination in this relatively small sector.
The average age of heavy trucks –– tow trucks –– in Jordan has increased over the past ten years, from about 13 years to about 19 years, according to data from the Land Transport Regulatory Authority.
According to the latest annual report of the Ministry of Transport in 2018, per every hundred heavy trucks registered, at least fifty exceed their average general life, according to the year of manufacture. Heavy trucks over 23 years old make up about a fifth of the vehicles registered in this class.
70% of heavy trucks in Jordan are owned by individuals, referred to as the unorganized transport sector.
A study conducted for the Jordanian Ministry of Transport in 2013 revealed that the Jordanian government's abolition of fixed wages for road transport, and cancellation of fuel subsidies, made it especially difficult for individual truck owners to invest in new vehicles, most of whom are hired by private companies on a commission basis.
The Jordanian Ministry of Transport acknowledged the long average life of trucks in the country, and proposed in its long-term strategy that the transport sector purchase older trucks to either re-export, or convert them to scrap. The ministry stressed the importance of removing trucks over twenty years old from service for safety purposes, given their low efficiency on the road.
Using the Traffic Institute's data on traffic volumes for 2016, this investigation’s analysis split the desert highway lengthwise, into six sections, based on a number of points showing clear differences in the total number of vehicles passing through them.
The analysis revealed that, over the past two years, the highest number of deaths resulting from traffic accidents occurred in Section 3 of the highway. The same result was also recorded for the year 2017. Section 2 of the highway followed closely, and came in second for the total deaths occurring from 2017-2020.
The results also showed that Section 3 recorded the largest number of fatal accidents during that same period, and the largest number of deaths and injuries on the road, followed by Section 1 of the highway. Meanwhile, between 2017 and 2020, the highest number of fatal accidents involving cargo vehicles were recorded in the first three sections of the highway.
The large number of trucks on this part of the highway is only one of the challenges of driving in these sections. A major hazard in many parts of the highway is the lack of lighting, which poses a great risk for drivers.
During the latter part of this year, the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Public Works announced a study underway to determine the cost and feasibility of installing a solar powered lighting system in the parts of the highway that pass through populated areas, as reported by the Jordanian News Agency (Petra).
Israa Mahadin, a lawyer whose work requires her to commute between Amman and Karak, complained about the lack of lighting in parts of the desert highway. "The parts of the highway where there is no lighting are very dangerous, and reflectors don't illuminate the road," she said.
Desert highway detours are hotspots
Several attempts at maintenance work on the desert highway have taken place due to the extent of wear. In September 2017, however, the government launched what was known as the "Desert Highway Rehabilitation Project”, which was described as a construction of a new road, rather than the completion of maintenance work.
The project involves scraping old asphalt and replacing it with new layers of asphalt, which would necessarily involve the construction of temporary detour routes and road traffic safety measures. A third lane, specifically for trucks, is intended to be added at a later stage, according to the annual report of the Audit Bureau for 2018.
The construction of the diversions depends on closing off one of the traffic lanes (northward or southward) in the part that is under construction, necessitating the use of the remaining narrow strip of road for two-way traffic. This would reduce the speed limit to around 60 km/h, and possibly down to 40 km/h at the entrances and exits of some diversions.
The Ministry of Public Works and Housing has openly acknowledged the seriousness of instituting the detour routes. During a seminar on Desert Highway traffic accidents held by the Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad, the Executive Director of Roads at the Ministry, Iman Obeidat, revealed that two-thirds of the accidents occurred within those detours, citing driver misjudgments and errors in speeding and overtaking.
This investigation’s analysis of the sampling of traffic accidents revealed that 37 deaths and 114 injuries resulted from only 30 accidents on detour routes. Collisions accounted for two-thirds of these accidents.
These figures, however, do represent all the incidents that occurred on detour routes. Putting together the sample collection required an accurate methodology to reach conclusive results. This meant excluding all accidents that news or police statements did not indicate as occurring on a detour route (at its beginning, in its middle or at its end).
In 2018, 2019 and 2020, diversions in the Dabaa area, both directions included, saw the highest number of fatal accidents, resulting in 14 deaths and 38 injuries. This was followed by the diversions in the Qatraneh region, which saw 6 deaths and 10 injuries in 2019 and 2020.
Professional sources do not exclude a potential increase in the occurrence of accidents on detour routes –– especially since drivers are requested to significantly reduce their speed on these routes, compared to much higher speed limits on the highway.
The US Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) cites research that lowering speed limits on diversions by 30 miles/hour (48 km/h) increases the risk of collisions on these routes.
The MUTCD, an important resource for researchers on road engineering, is used as a main reference in a number of Arabic manuals. Reducing the diversion speed by 10 miles/hour (16 km/hour) seems to be more effective in reducing the chance for collision.
The Ministry of Public Works and Housing has set the speed limit at 60 km/hour for detour routes on the desert highway while the project is underway. The construction work is subject to international specifications as applied by Saudi Arabia, whereby the difference between the speed limits on the highway and those on detour routes could reach up to 50 km/hour for small vehicles and 40 km/h for trucks.
The mayor of Al-Hasa, Ibrahim Abu Jfain, believes that there are differences in the specifications between the various detour routes, depending on which part of the highway they connect. Some contractors defined the lanes for traffic directions, while others left the roads without specifying the lanes.
Abu Jfain said that most of the deaths occurred in accidents on the part of the highway between Dabaa and Al-Hassa, and took place on open detour routes. “These were easy, smooth roads that were not rugged, and drivers were using excessive speeds and overtaking in both directions," he said.
The risk was not limited to detour routes without specified lanes, as those using poles and plastic spacers saw fatal accidents as well.
Warnings about accident risks in road work areas arrived early in the life of the project –– only a couple of months after the former Minister of Public Works and Housing Sami Halasa announced the implementation of the first diversion model, with the aim of adopting it later in six other parts of the highway.
One of the earliest warnings was a request by the Royal Security Command of the Badia (Desert) Regio, at the onset of the implementation of the project, to the Ministry of Public Works and Housing. The Royal Security Command instructed the contractor responsible for maintenance near the Arinbeh area to install concrete partitions, separating the two lanes of the road, following several fatal accidents in the diversion route in that area. They stated that poles and plastic spacers do not suffice in separating the lanes.
A parliamentary committee also made recommendations about the specifications of diversions on the desert highway, following an inspection visit two years after the start of the road rehabilitation project. During the project, 69 deaths and 1056 injuries were recorded due to traffic accidents, according to Traffic Institute data.
Even during the final stages of the project, dangerous road accidents continued to happen. After two traffic accidents that resulted in nine deaths, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing had the lanes separated on the Al-Qatrana diversion to prevent drivers from overtaking each other just four days after the start of road work, as published by the External Patrols Department on their official Facebook page in September 2020.
Truck Lanes and the Absence of Planning
A study conducted by the Traffic Institute on the desert highway for the years 2016-2017 mentioned the importance of separating trucks from other vehicles, and recommended halting the movement of freight vehicles on the highway during peak hours on specific days, diverting their movement to the Dibba-Hanout-Jafr road.
The Minister of Public Works and Housing had announced at the launch of the project that there will be a third lane specifically for trucks. However, that decision was withdrawn and the Ministry was content with compelling large trucks to drive on the right lane on route to Aqaba, and fuel trucks on the Al-Jafr – Al-Azraq route.
A 2016 World Bank report revealed a "clear imbalance in spending in favor of costly rebuilding compared to regular maintenance" of Jordan's road infrastructure.
According to the report, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing gave priority to repairing roads that were badly damaged, due to insufficient funds and the accumulated balance of maintenance work.
Urban planning expert Dr. Murad Kalaldeh said that the desert highway rehabilitation project exposed the absence of planning, as it is not a priority in light of the state’s approach to decentralization, relieving pressure on the center and returning to the peripheries. “We don't want to encourage the people to come and live in Amman,” Kalaldeh said.
Kalaldeh believes that there should be a national urban strategy used as a reference to clarify needs and lay out priorities. This means the possibility of a different structure for roads, stressing the need to review the desert highway from a planning perspective, rather than rehabilitate this road constructed thirty years ago.
Kalaldeh, who is currently the head of the Jordanian Planning Forum, described the desert highway rehabilitation project as "an economic crime and a waste of public money, that involves removing one layer from the road and replacing it with another, while disregarding the renovation and development dimension.”
Human Error or Road Defects?
Traffic Institute data for the year 2017 revealed that sudden lane changes by drivers accounted for close to 60% of traffic accidents caused by human error on the desert highway, and about two thirds of the deaths resulting from road accidents on the highway. This topped the list of human errors during the first quarter of 2018, on that highway.
A 2015 study conducted by the Jordan Traffic Institute on the desert highway indicated that drivers may resort to changing lanes to avoid potholes and bumps on the road which, in turn, leads to a deviation from the right lane and thus causes an accident.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing considered speeding violations to be the most prominent errors that caused accidents on the desert highway.
This investigation followed a number of speeding violations that were monitored by the External Patrol Department on the desert highway. It revealed 28 cases of speed violations on detour routes in one year in which fatal accidents occurred, resulting in the deaths of 22 people and the injury of 52 others from 2018-2020.
Official statistics indicate that the vast majority of road accidents that resulted in injuries in Jordan were due to human error. The most recent statistics were published in Jordan’s 2019 Annual Report of Traffic Accidents, which stated that the human factor’s contribution to injurious traffic accidents amounted to 98.2%, compared to 0.6% borne by road defects.
When it comes to road quality, Jordan ranked 63rd in the world from 2017-2018, with an index of 4.1/7 according to the World Economic Forum's classification. This raised questions about the criteria that were used to calculate the contribution of the human factor to injurious accidents in Jordan.
The picture becomes clearer through a comparison with the United Arab Emirates, which ranked first in the world in road quality, and where the contribution of human error to accidents does not exceed 85%. As for Egypt, it ranked closer to Jordan, scoring 3.9/7, with the contribution of the human factor in accidents reaching 77%, compared to 15% caused by road conditions in recorded accidents.
The World Health Organization states that road infrastructure is strongly linked with serious injuries and deaths caused by traffic accidents, deeming that design and maintenance must implement safety procedures that take into account human error.
Legally speaking, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing is responsible for roads, including external roads, and for ensuring the safety of road users.
Last year, the Jordanian Court of Cassation relied on this legal responsibility when ruling in a lawsuit filed by the family of a man who died in an accident on the desert highway 12 years ago. The man, the breadwinner of his family now filing for compensation, died when his vehicle crashed in a tunnel that was not surrounded by protective barriers, killing all the passengers. The court's decision held the ministry 50% responsible for the accident based on its responsibility for roads and their safety and maintenance. The Ministry is also responsible for erecting warning signs and barriers to ensure the safety of road users.
Murad Al-Bustanji, the attorney assigned to the case, said that the court based its decision on a specialized technical report to highlight the defects of the road as, previously, the driver of the vehicle was held solely responsible for the accident per the speeding clause. The law mandated the driver of the vehicle take necessary precautions for traffic safety, while the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, as well as the municipalities, bore responsibility for road defects.
ARIJ sent requests for comment to the Land Transport Regulatory Authority and the Ministry of Public Works and Housing to clarify the details of the investigation, attaching the right to information clause, but to date, has not received a response.
This investigation was carried out with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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