Cars trump guns as cause of death in Middle East

As UN begins its Decade of Road Safety, region has its work cut out for it; road deaths in Middle East occur twice as often as in US.

By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
May 17, 2011 18:43
Traffic accident [illustrative]

Traffic accident car accident 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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The Middle East and North Africa capture the world’s headlines when there’s a war, a terror attack or a bloody government crackdown. But the deaths caused by soldiers and gunmen are tiny compared to the carnage that the region’s residents create getting behind the wheel of a car.

Some 72,000 people died in road accidents in 2007, the last year for which comparative data are available, in the countries ranging from Morocco to Iran, according to data compiled the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO). That’s more than twice the number in the US, even though the Middle East’s population of 390 million that year is just 60% bigger and the number of cars on the road is far smaller.

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WHO believes the death toll on the region’s roads is considerably higher – perhaps 120,000 -- because many countries don’t report all their fatalities.

They are very high. There about 32 per 100,000 population and the global average is about 18.8 and in the European region it’s about 13,” Tami Toroyan, who is responsible for WHO’s global reporting on road safety, told The Media Line, citing estimated 2004 numbers. “In the Middle East it’s a leading cause of death, but it hasn’t received public attention.”

The UN organization is just getting interested in road safety and published its first report comparing international rates of road accidents in 2009. WHO is worried that as the world grows wealthier and more people take to the road, the number of accidents will grow. Seven years ago, road accidents were the ninth leading cause of death around the world; by 2030 they could be the fifth, outpacing HIV/AIDS and lung cancer, according to WHO.

As it launched on May 11 its “Decade of Road Safety,” Toroyan is compiling new data that will serve as a benchmark for measuring whether the next decade’s worth of efforts at reducing traffic accidents succeeded.

The Middle East has the most to gain from any improvement. In 2004, the last year for which there is figures, it was the sixth-leading cause of death, three places ahead of war and conflict. Most critically, they strike the youngest and most productive members of society: Among children age 5-14 and adults 30-44, it’s the second leading cause of death. Among young people in between, its No. 1, according toWHO.

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It also weighs down on economies, struggling with high rates of population growth and high unemployment.WHO estimates road deaths costs the region, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, some $7.5 billion annually. Iran and Jordan have both independently estimated that accidents lowered gross domestic product by about 2%.

More worryingly, death from roads happen just as frequently among the Middle East’s rich countries as among its poor, on contrast to much of the world where money buys better roads and safer cars. Based on WHO’s estimate for real, rather than reported fatalities, in Saudi Arabia, the rate is 29 deaths in 2008 per 100,000 population, close to the median for the region, while in Qatar its 23.7 and in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the rate 37.1.

Among poorer countries, the rate is higher – Libyans died in automobile accidents last year at a rate of 40.5 per 100,000 people, just behind Egypt’s 41.6. That makes Egypt the second-deadliest place in the world to drive after the tiny Cook Islands, whose 13,000 people suffered six deaths in 2008.

“No one follows any rules … There needs to be a traffic officer by every light in order for people to abide by the law,” Joseph Fahim, an editor with the Daily News Egypt, said about his fellow drivers in Cairo in an interview with The Media Line. “We don’t have the concept of people sticking to the lanes.”

Some 40% of the country lives on less than $2 a day and the number of drivers is 4.3 million in a population of close to 80 million. But some 17 million people are squeezed into greater Cairo, creating huge traffic jams and masses of pedestrians vulnerable to being hit by a car. Motor scooters and other small vehicles that ill the city’s streets are more risk laden than sedans and trucks. Once you leave the “nightmare” of Cairo even into the suburbs, driving is safer.

Why can’t the Middle East learn to drive?

The WHO’s Toroyan attributes the problem to several factors. One is the rapid pace of car usage over the last decades which has in many places outpaced the development of infrastructure. The region’s population is very young, and young drivers all around the world are the worst. The ban on alcohol by Islam, by far the predominant faith of the region, creates problems, as well.

“A lot of countries in the Middle East don’t have drunk-driving laws because alcohol is officially banned,” she said. In addition, road safety takes back seat to other health issues. “In a lot of countries there has been a lack of ownership of the issue. It falls between the cracks.”

However, Dubai, with one of the world’s highest auto death tools, is cracking down on bad driving. Police estimate that road deaths increased 60% between 1998 and 2007 before starting to head downwards as authorities got tough on bad driving. Still a fender-bender occurred about every three minutes in the tiny emirate.

Last year, police in Dubai, one of the UAE’s constituent emirates, embarked on a campaign to reduce the number of road fatalities to zero per 100,000 people by 2020. Police Chief Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim says he wants to make Dubai roads among the safest in the world through a campaign of carrots, sticks and education.

Police unveiled a plan on Monday to reward good drivers with “white points” that allow them to remove minor violations from the driving record. For the incorrigible, police have installed a system that links speed cameras, radar guns and traffic-light cameras with roaming police vehicles. Within minutes of being identified, speeders and other violators of traffic laws can expect to be pulled over by a patrol car. For the next generation, the Roads and Transport Authority has begun a program of lectures and promotional literature to teach about the dangers of speeding and the need to wear seat belts.

“We aim to achieve zero fatalities from road accidents by 2020; this is no doubt an ambitious target," said Major General Saif Al Zafein, director-general of Dubai Traffic Police.

David E. Miller contributed to this story.

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